A Stated Meeting of the Society was held at the house of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 28 Newbury Street, Boston, on Thursday, 28 March, 1918, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the President, Fred Norms Robinson, Ph.D., in the chair.
The Records of the last Stated Meeting were read and approved.
The President announced the death, on the twenty-seventh instant, of the Rev. Edward Hale, a Resident Member. Mr. Henry W. Cunningham paid the following tribute to his memory:
The Society has lost one of its valued members by the death yesterday of the Rev. Edward Hale at his home in Chestnut Hill. Born at Northampton, February 22, 1858, the son of William Bainbridge and Harriet Amelia (Porter) Hale, he prepared for college at Phillips Exeter Academy and was graduated from Harvard in 1879 with high rank as a scholar. He spent the next three years in Italy tutoring the sons of Mrs. Langdon Williams, who had lived for a number of years in Rome. The following year he was secretary to President Eliot and gave some time during that year and the next at Harvard and under H. H. Richardson to the study of architecture, which he had expected to make his profession. But he finally decided to give up this work, though it was always an avocation of interest, and in later years amidst other duties he had the pleasure of designing houses for his brother, for several friends, and finally made the plans for his own home at Chestnut Hill.
In January, 1884, he entered the Harvard Divinity School, where he received the degree of S.T.B. in 1886; and then, after a summer spent in France and the Island of Jersey, he was on October 14, 1886, ordained and at the same time installed as Associate Minister of the South Congregational Church (Unitarian) of Boston, of which the Rev. Dr. Edward Everett Hale was the beloved pastor, though these two ministers were probably not related — certainly not near of kin.
Here he remained for nearly five years, during which time he served as secretary of a society for the relief of aged clergymen and also as president for three years of the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches. In the spring of 1891 he became the first minister of the recently incorporated First Unitarian Church of Essex County at Orange, New Jersey, where he remained for six years. During this period he had given some instruction at the Harvard Divinity School, going to Cambridge once a fortnight, and in 1897 he became Assistant Professor of Homiletics there, retiring from his ministry at Orange. In addition to this work he served as an official of several church and charitable organizations in Cambridge and Boston, and one year, during the absence of Professor Peabody, had charge of the arrangements for Appleton’ Chapel. For a portion of one year he edited the Christian Register, and in addition, at the request of a committee of the Divinity Faculty, performed with a loving hand the difficult task of editing the lectures of the late Rev. Dr. Charles Carroll Everett. Dr. Everett had left no manuscript of these lectures and the only available material was the notes taken by students. In 1901 he was honored by the election as President of the Meadville Theological School, but decided not to accept.
In addition to his other duties, he had in 1897 taken charge of the First Church at Chestnut Hill, and as this church and its work grew he decided in 1906 to devote his time to this and resigned his positions at Cambridge.
He was married at Boston, June 19, 1889, to Emily Jose Milliken, daughter of Elias Tarbox and Emily Motley (Jose) Milliken. His widow and one daughter survive him, as well as a brother, Philip Hale of Brookline.
When we recount the interests and activities of this quiet gentleman, it is a wonder that he accomplished so much, for he touched nothing lightly and whatever he attempted he did conscientiously. A man of strong character and ability, his heart entered as warmly into his work as did his head. He wrote easily, and on some occasions in verse.
He was chosen a member of this Society in 1900 and was often present at our meetings, and he served for three years as a member of our Council. His only literary work for the Society was a Memoir of the Rev. Dr. Edward Henry Hall.366
Mr. Charles M. Andrews, a Corresponding Member, spoke as follows:
Before presenting the paper which I am to read this afternoon, I should like to say something in my own behalf and in behalf of the work which this society is organized to promote. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts is, I believe, the only body in the country which according to the name it bears confines its attention to the study of colonial history. Its founders deliberately called it the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and I like to think that in doing so they had in mind not a society for the study of the colonial history of Massachusetts, but a Massachusetts society for the study of colonial history. There is a world of difference in these two renderings of its meaning, and because I prefer to give to the name its more comprehensive connotation and to think of our society as concerned with colonial history in all its aspects I take the liberty of stating briefly what I think the word “colonial” really means. I have been trying, for some years — if you will pardon the intrusion of a much used colloquialism— to put the “colonial” into colonial history, and to find out just what that word signifies as applied to the period from 1607 to 1783.
The term “colonial,” as used in the phrase “the colonial period of American history,” is not merely a convenient distinction marking off a certain chronological epoch or characterizing a certain stage of our development as a nation. It bears within itself a peculiar significance defining a relationship between two peoples or governments, standing to each other as mother country and colonies. These are correlative terms, each of which directly implies or involves the other, and neither can stand by itself alone. A colony must have a mother country and a mother country must have a colony, and each is bound to be influenced by whatever that relationship demands. The extent and nature of the relationship may vary greatly in different cases, even becoming merely nominal as with the great self-governing dominions of Great Britain to-day or involving complete dependence as with the old Spanish colonies in America. But whatever form the relationship takes, the fact that it exists is the main thing to be considered in dealing with any period of history that bears the name “colonial,” for all other aspects of the period are certain to be influenced by this dominant feature. In it lies the key to our colonial history.
First of all, then, if we are to study our colonial era, not as antiquarians but as historians, we must comprehend exactly what is meant by our relationship with Great Britain during this period of a century and three-quarters, a period longer by forty years than that which covers our growth and experience as an independent people. To do this requires a careful study of British history as well as American. I do not believe that any one can write the history of the American colonies who has not followed the transformations which took place in British ideas and forms of government during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, traced the changes which came about in the foreign policies of those who had the destinies of the British Empire in their hands, and grasped the significant fact that British colonial methods were themselves an evolved product, gradually shaped during many years of travail and uncertainty and adapted more or less unconsciously to the demands of a state which was expanding from an island kingdom into a world empire. We cannot understand, in the historical sense of the word, what was happening in the colonies unless we understand what was happening in England at the same time. The colonies reflected at every point in their careers the changes of constitution, purpose, and policy that were effected in England during our colonial period. No history of the colonies is possible that does not take these changes into account. Much always depends on a child’s bringing up; the child may wish in his mature years to forget some of the features of his education, but he cannot ignore them as factors in his early life.
In the second place, in dealing with the colonies themselves, we must remember that no single colony existed in isolation and that the history of no colony can be adequately written if all influences lying beyond its borders are ignored. Yet in the past we have been inclined to approach the British colonies in America as if each were an independent, self-contained state. It is true that the only unity that the colonies possessed lay in their connection with the mother country and the only single aspect common to all was conformity to British policy and to the rules and regulations that governed Great Britain in the exercise of her sovereign power. Nevertheless the fact that the authority of the mother country was obeyed or resisted to various extents and in various degrees in the different colonies makes it clear that we can ascertain the position of one only as we ascertain the position of the others also. The colonies should be studied comparatively, for exclusive devotion to a single colony generally destroys one’s sense of proportion and perspective, and leads to exaggerations and extravagances. This is true not only in regard to the influence of British policy, but even more in the matter of intercolonial characteristics and contrasts. Such likenesses and unlikenesses are in importance second only to the relationship with the mother country. There were features, common to all, that were making for individualism, initiative, and self-reliance, for in many respects the colonies all together were moving toward a common goal — the development of a spirit of self-government and independence. At the same time there were other features, often deep-seated and antagonistic, that were rendering united action a delusion and a discouragement. Both sets of characteristics played their part in bringing on the Revolution. The growing radical spirit of independence, hostile to all restraints and conventions, finally dominated the situation after 1773; while the seeming hopelessness of concordant action and the failure of the whole system of voluntary quotas and requisitions of men and money placed the British government on the horns of a dillemma after 1763, when they sought to obtain aid from the colonies in order to organize and defend the newly acquired western lands. The Revolution was the work, not of one colony or two colonies but of many colonies, and all must be taken into account. Furthermore, such a comparative study will aid in dissipating prepossessions and prejudices due to a desire for local glorification, and will raise colonial history to the level of an historical subject, objectively and scientifically considered.
In the third place, the term “colonial” always indicates a connection between two different types or stages of political and social development: one, represented by the mother country, old, settled, highly-organized, with deeply-rooted respect for history, law, tradition, and precedent; the other, represented by the colonies, new, imperfectly settled, a frontier land instinct with individualism and possessed of a very rudimentary sense of obligation and duty, such as accompanies membership in a more compactly organized social group. So far as our colonial history is concerned, the inevitable outcome of such conditions was the presence, particularly in the days before the Revolution, of widely differing ways of feeling and thinking, due in part to history and environment and in part to experience and conviction, that caused men to approach each in his own way the difficult points at issue. In Great Britain they did not all have the same opinion regarding the duty of the government toward America, and in the colonies there were many men of conservative, moderate, and radical leanings, who disagreed fundamentally regarding the necessity or otherwise of the connection with the mother country. Students of colonial history should give full weight to these various states of mind and not restrict themselves to those only with which they may happen to be in sympathy. They should make it clear that from 1763 to 1773, in both countries, there were vicissitudes of conflict, forces working for reconciliation as well as for independence, with the moderates and peace-makers mainly in control. They should trace the factors in this conflict in order to understand why after 1773 the extremists in both countries, reactionaries in Great Britain and radicals in America, gradually consolidating into parties, gained the upper hand, with the resultant coercion on one side and revolt on the other. It is impossible to be fair and impartial in treating the colonial phase of the situation if we study, as is usually done, only the radical side and, by calling its supporters “patriots” and glorifying their every action, disguise the fact that they were agitators and revolutionists — often uncontrolled and lawless men. It is equally impossible to be just if we ignore the credit due the moderates, made up of the propertied and mercantile classes and of those who honestly preferred the British connection or were true to their allegiance due the British crown, and cast them all out as Tories and enemies to their country. No good is done by calling every Son of Liberty a hero of unsullied motives and extolling his merits above those of other and sometimes better and wiser men. Many a Son of Liberty was a law-breaker and disturber of the peace, construing liberty in terms of muscle and not of right. Language is often the worst enemy of the truth, and nouns and adjectives, like figures and statistics, can be made to lie with exceeding facility. Much of the writing on the pre-Revolutionary period is rendered historically unsound quite as much by stresses and omissions as by deliberate perversions of the facts. As there have been neglected periods of colonial history, such as that from 1690 to 1750, and neglected phases, such as those of colonial commerce and the relationship with Great Britain, so there are neglected aspects of thought and opinion, such as characterized the men opposed to extremes of action in both countries, who though they failed in the end are deserving of as careful a consideration at the hands of the historian as are those who carried the day for revolt in the years before 1776.
Mr. Andrew then read the following paper, written by Dr. Ralph V. Harlow of Simmons College:
The brevity of this essay will render unnecessary the statement that it does not purport to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject: it is rather in the nature of an introduction, written with the hope that it may call attention to what is certainly a neglected aspect of the Revolution. The material used was gathered in the course of a fairly minute examination of the sources of Massachusetts history for this period. The aim of that work, however, was political and constitutional, but it brought up so many sidelights on economic conditions that it seemed worth while to put them in accessible form.
Without attempting to summarize the earlier issues, it may be pointed out that the Boston Tea Party had served not only to disclose the strength of the radicals in Massachusetts, but also to focus the attention of Parliament and the administration directly upon what many Englishmen regarded as the stubborn perversity of the colony. It became only too clear that a crisis of some kind was imminent, and the foreboding which consequently prevailed had already begun to leave unmistakable marks on the business world. In January, 1774, John Adams, then a young lawyer of promise, viewed with something akin to alarm the collapse of his practice, which, he wrote, had been “totally annihilated” for the year past, by the “inauspicious course of public affairs.”367 Such a complaint from a successful attorney indicates that general business prosperity must have been at a very low ebb.
If the agitation over the tea produced a cessation of business activity, the Port Bill ruined it, so far as Boston was concerned. By the summer of 1774, merchants were complaining in earnest. Incomes ceased, and as for collecting debts, John Andrews wrote that “you might as well ask a man for the teeth out of his head as to request the payment of money that he owes you.”368
What the Port Bill did for Boston alone the Association did for the whole province. The essence of that arrangement was a stringent non-export and non-import agreement, theoretically voluntary, actually enforced by the revolutionary committees. It fell to the Provincial Congress to carry out the recommendations of the national body. In order to prevent the further buying or selling of either British or West Indian goods, and to see that the Association was “strictly executed,” the local Congress urged all towns which had not already done so to appoint committees of inspection. These committees were authorized to seize the goods of recalcitrant traders. In accordance with this recommendation, the town of Boston appointed a committee of sixty-three, to enforce the edict.369
The result was all that could be desired. In December, 1774, John Adams reported “a total stagnation of . . . commerce almost.” Business was so completely at a standstill that artizans could find no employment, and no one could pay his debts. To make matters worse, the courts had been closed since September, so that even though the stubborn debtor had property, the creditor had no means of enforcing settlement.370 Thus the actual outbreak of hostilities was preceded by the collapse of commercial activity; business was at an end, and the debt collecting machinery was in ruins.371
During the first year of the war, conditions did not materially change. Boston, to be sure, was besieged by the American troops, and it naturally suffered, but the rest of the province encountered nothing more serious than it had already experienced. Trade naturally did not revive at once as soon as war was declared. For one thing, the non-exportation agreement was “sacredly observed” as late as November 5, 1775, and so intense was the feeling that it could not have been violated with safety.372 Then the fact that Britain was a naval power would make the resumption of commerce somewhat difficult. Privateering, carried on extensively toward the end of the war, was hardly under way in 1776. Because of the shutting off of imports, European and West Indian goods were scarce and costly. Provisions, however, were “plenty and cheap,” while beef was “a drug,” and the farmers were complaining that the commissary sent to Connecticut for all his beef.373 Apparently there was no cause for undue alarm. Opportunities for making money had of course been curtailed in some directions, as the inevitable result of war, but there seems to have been no difficulty in getting enough to eat. This, too, it should be noted, was the situation while Massachusetts was the principal scene of military operations, when, theoretically, economic conditions should have been at least as bad as at any subsequent period of the struggle.
Instead of bringing an improvement, however, the evacuation of Boston by the British was speedily followed by a disquieting change for the worse. The causes of this unexpected turn were both various and complex. In the first place, the reversal was certainly accompanied, if not actually occasioned, by a series of important legislative enactments. These statutes violated principles which economists call laws, and produced results which were in themselves distinguishing features of the period. For one thing, the General Court and the Continental Congress proceeded to dabble with that already well-known American form of alchemy: the attempt to transmute paper into gold, or at least into its equivalent. Consequently a brief survey of the fiscal policy of the government up to the end of 1777 will be of considerable assistance in any attempt to describe and explain economic conditions. From 1774 to 1777, inclusive, the state emitted bills of credit to the amount of £500,042. For the same period, treasurer’s certificates aggregating £656,000 were issued. But this was a mere nothing compared with the tremendous flood of continental currency that was literally poured into the state. Congress rather than the General Court was the guilty party when it came to wholesale inflation. It is impossible to estimate how much of this paper was in circulation, but some idea of its volume can be gathered from the attempts of Massachusetts to redeem her share of it. In 1780 the state issued £460,000 in bills of credit to help call in some of the continental notes, and shortly afterward voted a tax of £5,601,025 for the same purpose.374
In order to give proper weight to these various issues in 1776 the General Court passed a law not only to make the bills of credit of both Massachusetts and the United States legal tender in all payments, but also to prevent their depreciation. Any person convicted of receiving or paying out bills of credit for an amount less than their face value was declared ineligible to any civil or military office, and fined £40 for each offence. Moreover, a fine of £20 was imposed for offering to sell goods at lower prices for gold or silver than for paper.375 Although credit was being piled up in this generous fashion, the legislature was not inclined to vote correspondingly heavy taxes. The amounts called for are significant: £46,000 in 1775; none at all in 1776; £101,875 in January, 1777; and £205,662 in December of the same year.376
Thus the egg of paper money was laid, and out of it there was hatched, not merely one ugly duckling, but a whole brood. Depreciation, with the inevitable accompaniment of rising prices, was in evidence early in 1776. Colonel Otis wrote that the currency had depreciated, and that some persons refused to take it on any account.377 By midsummer the cost of living had doubled over the previous year. Not only were imported goods expensive, because of shortage due to the war, but all foodstuffs raised in the vicinity had advanced to “a very great price,” to quote Abigail Adams. Incidentally she was careful to point out that the high cost of the necessaries of life was by no means due to any real scarcity of provisions.378 It is clear that prices had begun to respond to the pressure of a steadily increasing volume of currency.
Rising prices, however, are not the only offspring of monetary inflation. Fluctuating or uncertain values generally appeal to the gambling instinct, and even thus early there are traces of a propensity towards speculation. In May, 1776, James Sullivan wrote that “public virtue is almost swallowed up in a desire of possessing paper currency; and parsimony, in the modest and charming dress of frugality, together with covetousness, . . . does us much injury.”379 Along with this tendency there was also to be found the time-honored disinclination to pay debts.380
Furthermore, this combination of cheap money and rising prices, along with the evidence of speculation, was bound to create suspicion and ill-will among the various groups and interests in the state. When the ordinary foodstuffs were raised right here in the state, it seemed absurd to pay twice as much for them as before. Something was wrong, clearly enough, and it was not long before both the farmer and the merchant began to make invidious remarks about each other’s greed. Abigail Adams was convinced that both parties were guilty of taking advantage of the prevailing financial and commercial conditions to reap exorbitant profits.381 Thus the financial experiment of the state and nation combined to unsettle still further conditions in a community, the ordinary economic life of which had already been deranged by war.
This unprecedented and disquieting advance in the cost of living seemed to be entirely unnecessary. In such a time of stress it was natural for the citizens to turn to the government for aid, as they did. But instead of blaming the legislature for its unsound financial policy, the people demanded action that would check the too profitable careers of greedy, extortionate dealers. Laws of economics are intangible things at best, and it was the grocer and butcher who actually took the money. If these unscrupulous speculators were really forcing up prices, as charged, the most obvious remedy was regulation by the government, and the General Court was not at all averse to a trial of strength with the marketmen. Surely if the legislature could manufacture money out of paper, and give it a value by statute, it could also control prices. In January, 1777, therefore, a law with the following preamble was passed: “Whereas the avaricious conduct of many persons, by daily adding to the now exorbitant prices of every necessary and convenient article of life and increasing the price of labour in general, unless a speedy and effectual stop be put thereto, will be attended with the most fatal and pernicious consequences. . . .” The Act went on to impose maximum prices for almost all the ordinary necessaries of life: food, fuel, and wearing apparel, as well as for day labor382
The prices named in the law applied to Boston. For other towns the respective selectmen were authorized to regulate prices in accordance with this scale, making the necessary allowances for differences in the cost of transportation. The law was also designed to prevent engrossing, and to that end the selectmen were empowered to seize goods held for gain, and also to confiscate the stock of merchants who refused to comply with the regulations.
So far as achieving its immediate aim was concerned, the measure was a failure, as a glance at the table of prices will show. Even if enforced, it is difficult to see how a mere statute could have put a stop to the evils let loose by financial inflation, and this law was not enforced. For example, James Warren wrote that the regulating act had been observed in some places, and disregarded in others, particularly in Boston, “where it is constantly violated in open daylight.” He considered the measure impracticable, because of its tendency to bring the authority of government into disrepute. Then Robert Treat Paine reported that the act, which had been urgently called for by almost everyone, was then “reprobated by many and obeyed by few.” Abigail Adams added her testimony, to the effect that the law was “no more heeded than if it had never been made.”383
The foregoing comments reveal how generally the law failed to accomplish its proper object. There is other evidence which indicates that the measure served to accentuate the growing cleavage between the producers on the one hand and the merchant and consumer on the other. Whatever may have been the cause, whether mere coincidence or conscious action by the farmer, certain it is that the towns were confronted by an uncomfortable shortage of food, and it is equally clear that for this situation they held the countrymen responsible. On January 31, three days after the law went into effect, William Pynchon of Salem wrote in his diary that “The contest between farmers and Salem traders, etc., as to prices of meal begins; the farmer threatens to starve the seaports.” In March Rufus King wrote from Cambridge that “Many towns this way are reduced to great Distress, by reason of the Act of the Genl. Assembly, stating the Prices of the necessaries of life. No Provisions brought to market. No Wood.” Families were moving out of town, and conditions were as bad as they had been during the siege. Two weeks later James Warren reported from Boston that the act in question “has yet produced no other consequences but bitterness and wrath between the Town and Country, the last of which is endeavouring to starve the Town in return for what they consider ill usage from them and have succeeded so well, that the market here is little superiour to what it was in the siege.”384
This shortage seems to have lasted through the spring and early summer of 1777. In April, according to Abigail Adams, there was a deficiency of all kinds of supplies, necessaries of life as well as luxuries. Then in July she reported a great scarcity in particular of coffee and sugar, and she inferred that the trouble was due to hoarding. Also Pynchon wrote that the people of Marblehead and Salem were quarreling for bread at the baker’s, and that there was a “scramble at the wharf in weighing out and selling Capt. Derby’s coffee.”385 Finally, in September, with the avowed object of food conservation, the General Court passed a law to prevent the manufacture of spirituous liquors from cider, wheat, corn, rye, oats, and barley.386
These conditions — food shortage, high prices, and general suspicion of motives — all served to aggravate the growing ill-will of the townsman toward the farmer. But the urban population by no means had a monopoly on these charges of unfair dealing. If accusations of greed could be made by one side, they could be countered by similar charges of speculation and profiteering. Abigail Adams, writing from the country, asserted that the people of Boston were actuated by a “spirit of avarice and contempt of authority,” and “an inordinate love of gain;” she also commented upon prevalent charges against the merchants, who were accused of monopolizing certain commodities, in order to create a scarcity and so force up the price.387
These convictions that the dealers were engaged in an unholy plot to enrich themselves at the expense of the luckless consumer were subsequently given more formal and authoritative expression. On May 21, 1777, there assembled a convention composed of all the committees of correspondence in Plymouth County. This gathering unanimously adopted resolutions condemning the “extraordinary lust for gain” which would “astonish all future generations, and give a vicious cast to [our] noblest achievements.” Then they continued: “This Convention, alarmed at the rapid progress of avarice and extortion, which, like a resistless torrent, has overspread the land, and threatens the utter extinction of every virtuous and patriotic sentiment, earnestly entreat their countrymen to pause a moment from the pursuit of wealth, and reflect on the tremendous consequences” which would follow such a “defection from public spirit and virtue.” They concluded by charging that internal enemies were “monopolizing warlike stores, cloathing, provisions, &c. as well for the purpose of enhancing the prices of these commodities, and so depreciating the currency, as for reducing the people to distress and want.”388
Thus far an attempt has been made to show in what respects the action of the legislature contributed to bring about that change for the worse which was so conspicuous a feature of the years 1776 and 1777. The evidence summarized reveals a discouraging situation: financial inflation, an alarming increase in the cost of living, speculation, unpatriotic greed, and worst of all, pronounced ill-will of one section toward another. Unfortunately these characteristics by no means complete the catalogue of economic difficulties that arose to torment the state in time of war. There were yet other manifestations of a collapse of prosperity, occasioned not so much by governmental interference with natural laws as by the inevitable derangement of commerce, and the long-continued interruption of trade and fishing.
An able contemporary analysis of; the situation is to be found in a letter written by Robert Treat Paine. He explained that the war —
has thrown property into channels, where before it never was, and has increased little streams to overflowing rivers: and what is worse, in some respects by a method that has drained the sources of some as much as it has replenished others. Rich and numerous prizes, and the putting six or seven hundred per cent on goods bought in peace time, are the grand engines. Moneys in large sums, thrown into their hands by these means, enables them to roll the snow ball of monopoly and forestalling; and thus while these people are heaping up wealth . . . the remaining part are jogging on in their old way, with few or no advantages, and the salary men and those who live on the interest of their money are suffering exceedingly.389
This letter calls attention to the gains of the few. There is other contemporary evidence which emphasizes the losses of the many. For example, in explaining why Salem could not pay the amount called for in the last apportionment of taxes, John Pickering, on behalf of the town, dwelt upon the economic conditions brought on by the war. In normal times, he wrote, the principal source of revenue had been shipping, and that industry was practically at a standstill. Privateering was carried on to a limited extent, but it was a poor substitute for trade and the fisheries. There were opportunities for large profits, to be sure, but the danger of total loss was even greater. Moreover, this activity was confined to a very few men, and the gains were consequently enjoyed by them; the general public got little out of it. To make matters worse, population was diminishing, and the town was overburdened with the care of dependent families of men engaged in the service of the state, captured by the enemy, or lost at sea. Then too there were almost no farms in Salem, so the town was anything but self-supporting.390
At the same time, Gloucester sent in a more elaborate account of its misfortunes. Since the year 1775 the town had lost 60 fishing boats, the total value of which was £18,000, and 18 merchantmen, valued at £7,200. The estimated loss on trade and fishing since 1775 amounted to £19,000. Many of the wharves and stores had been destroyed, large numbers of men were in the army and navy, or were prisoners of war, and many of the foremost merchants had moved out of town. The writer asserted that only three vessels from Gloucester were then engaged in foreign trade, and that the business of the shopkeepers was at an end. To make matters worse, not more than 16 men in town raised their own provisions.391
The agent for the little town of Wellfleet, on the Cape, reported that before the war, residents of the town had about 30 vessels employed in the whale fishery, and that those were nearly all “hauled up,” and the business at an end. Moreover, the vessels still in service had been let to continental or state agents, because their owners lacked the wherewithal to engage in the West Indian trade. Those inhabitants who were so fortunate as to have any money left were buying farms in other parts of the state and moving away. The land in Wellfleet did not produce provisions enough to support ten per cent of the inhabitants, and the people had nothing to exchange for supplies. Adjacent towns carried their surplus products to Boston, Salem, or Newbury, where they could get West India goods in exchange. To make matters worse, in 1776 the oysters in the bay all died, for some unaccountable reason, and that meant a further loss of about £1000.392
The town of Dartmouth asserted that the whaling business, formerly the chief industry, was gone. And finally, Rehoboth mournfully — and ungrammatically — reported that only three-fourths as much grain as usual had been raised, and that much of the land lay waste and uncultivated. Many houses were old and falling to pieces, and the inhabitants were too poor to repair them. In conclusion, the writer announced that “there is not one Trader in town nor any privateer oned in town, the costing Botes have no imploy.”393
Even when allowance is made for exaggerations, conscious or otherwise, that may have been made for the purpose of securing a reduction of taxes, these reports show that the seaports were going through a real commercial crisis, the direct result of the war. To be sure, before peace was made privateering enabled many individuals to regain much of their lost prosperity, but the climax of that activity was not reached until 1782,394 while, as the evidence just summarized suggests, it was hardly under way in 1777. Thus there were added to the manifold evils connected with a depreciated currency the even more serious misfortunes due to a ruined commercial structure.
Meanwhile the subject of price regulation by the government was again attracting attention. In view of the lack of success attendant upon this venture, it is not surprising that the forces opposed to it gradually gained in strength. By the end of May, 1777, the Boston town-meeting was convinced that the regulating act should be totally repealed, on the grounds that it could not be enforced, that it was a prolific source of friction between town and country, and that it raised rather than lowered prices. If the act could be repealed, it was argued, and trade freed from its shackles, heavy imports would soon reduce prices. Trade must be allowed to regulate itself. Incidentally it was asserted that the law had thrown many honest traders out of business.395 On the other hand, the Plymouth convention referred to above urged that the people obey the price regulations, and that the law be continued.396
Instead of repealing this measure, however, the General Court passed another, on the ground that the prices fixed by the first were “not adequate to the expence which will hereafter probably be incurred in procuring such articles.” This second experiment authorized the selectmen in the various towns, as frequently as once in two months, to fix prices for labor, and for necessaries of life. As in the first, prices were named for the most important commodities. In addition, the selectmen were empowered to seize and sell goods held by any person who should disobey this or the earlier law. Finally, each town was directed to choose not less than three, nor more than seven persons, to prosecute all violations of either law.397
There is nothing to indicate that the new law was more effectively executed, or more successful in its operation than the old, and the advocates of repeal finally got the upper hand. On June 30 a convention representing all New England states met at Springfield, Massachusetts, to discuss the problem. Its advice, given to the four legislatures, recommended the repeal of all laws which attempted to regulate prices.398 In September, on the ground that the price fixing measures “have been very far from answering the salutary purposes for which they were intended,” the General Court completely repealed both laws.399 Thus, with its failure publicly confessed in the preamble, the legislature brought to a close its experiments in the control of prices by statute.
For the next year and a half, that is, for the rest of 1777 and the whole of 1778, the economic situation was not complicated by the appearance of any new factors. For one thing, there was enough food to go around, so the troubles of the towns were less serious than had been the case the preceding year.400 Prices nevertheless continued their relentless advance, and during this particular interval the rise was rapid. In the Boston memorial referred to above, it was stated that the people were “pain’d to observe, that they are obliged to give eight times as much for their provisions” as usual. By this time, some observers, with rare insight for the times, were pointing out that the primary cause of this particular evil was the volume of money in circulation.401
During the same time, too, friction between the producer, the merchant, and the consumer steadily grew worse, evidently because some business men were oblivious to patriotic appeals in the midst of exceptional opportunities for speculation. One unsigned communication in the Boston Gazette explained that “the farmer is complaining of the extortion of the merchant, in with-holding his merchandize or selling at an extravagant price; and the merchant is complaining of the farmer’s withholding his corn, and the necessaries of life; and the tradesman and mechanic are complaining, that between both the merchant and the farmer they shall suffer, as they can procure neither food nor raiment. — These difficulties and distresses are seen, and in some measure felt, by all ranks of people.”402 In somewhat less philosophical fashion the people of Boston insisted that their hardships were greatly increased “by the more than brutal conduct of those Wretches within a few miles of this capital known in the Odious Character of Forestallers.”403 By the spring of 1778 such complaints became almost chronic. For example, a certain “S.M.” in the Boston Gazette asserted that —
a private, selfish, and basely avaricious spirit has universally succeeded in the room of public virtue. . . . This is our unhappy case in this day of darkness. We know from what we every day feel, that commerce is so managed, as that it becomes a public nuisance, instead of a common benefit, and thousands of widows, orphans, and poor people, are ground almost to death by the greediness of avaricious merchants, monopolizers, farmers, sharpers, forestallers, mushroom traders, whose importance their own conceit is the fruit of having oppressed the necessitous, together with innumerable hawkers and hucksters, all of whom have been, and still are, outdoing one another in raising the price of everything. . . .
The truth is, . . . the thirst after gain is grown so insatiable, that neither reason, nor religion, nor a regard to the salvation of the country, lay the least restraint upon the generality in money getting.404
Still another letter, unsigned, runs:
The many impositions practis’d on the inhabitants of this town by those who supply our market, are so gross, that I am often surpris’d that people can continue so moderate, and suffer those extortioners to proceed in their abuse. If a market-man is allow’d to ask any price he thinks fit, having nothing but his own rapacity and our necessity to govern him, the whole property of this town may in a little while be drawn away, by purchasing a few potatoes, and a few other necessaries of life: every advantage is now in the hands of these people, and like rapacious wolves, they seem determined to improve them to our ruin: . . . Such horrid principles are the prevailing motives of our market, neither gratitude or affection for the town . . . have any share in all they do; and with justice may it be affirm’d, that within the circle of 10 or 15 miles of this town, those who frequent our market are as implacable enemies, and delight as much in distressing Boston, as any British troops . . . in America.405
By all odds the most important feature of this period was neither the high cost of living, nor the profiteering schemes of the merchants, but the unusual prosperity of the agricultural population. Evidence of this state of affairs is to be found as early as 1777. While the legitimate merchants were enduring all the hardships which resulted from the interruption of commerce, the farmers were making money.406 For their wares, with both the towns and the army constantly calling for more, the demand was almost always greater than the supply, so that the market was uniformly good.407 Moreover, the farmer was favorably rather than adversely affected by the rising prices. Whereas the merchant was compelled to pay exorbitant rates for the very necessaries of life, in spite of the fact that his business may have been ruined, the farmer could raise almost all of his own food supplies, so that whatever he got for the surplus was almost clear gain. Moreover, the actual cost of production had not kept pace with the advance in prices, so their continued rise meant a steadily increasing margin of profit.408
Indirect evidence on this point is to be found in the fact that merchants were leaving the coast towns, and buying farms in the interior. Both Gloucester and Wellfleet reported this circumstance, and the latter in particular laid emphasis on this transfer of capital from shipping to agriculture.409 Then people in Boston were firmly convinced that all their sacrifices in the war thus far had “opperated Hitherto intirely for the good of the land holder.”410 More positive proof of this rural prosperity is given in a letter from Orne of Salem to Pickering. He wrote that in spite of the copious emissions of paper money, not a merchant had £500 in his possession, while numbers of men who had hitherto been accounted wealthy then found it difficult to support their families. On the other hand, he continued, “our farmers who used to beg forbearance for the payment of Interest have now taken up their bonds and are now insolent with their thousands.”411 Although conditions were certainly abnormal when the wealthy farmer could lord it over the poverty-stricken merchant, they were not bad enough to produce serious suffering. So far as the evidence shows, people were able to get enough to eat, and, apparently, the wherewithal to pay for it.
The hardest times of the war, so far as the towns of Massachusetts were concerned, came during 1779 and 1780, and then, in addition to another heavy advance in the cost of living and the always vexatious greed of the dealers, the maritime sections had to endure the hardships of a real food shortage. Before the winter was over, the supply of wheat was almost exhausted. In February George Williams of Salem reported a great scarcity of bread in the state, and announced that a committee had been sent as far south as Maryland to procure flour. Both the poorer people and the merchants were said to be in great distress.412 In April, 1779, he wrote again, as follows: “we are in great distress hear for the want of Bread, Many Family’s has none to eat, our wicked Farmer’s has the modesty under a good grace to ask for Flour the small price of £45 to 50 per ct. . . . Many hear that had a good Living must be reduced to Beggary, on accot of the above price, the sea port Inhabitants are all most discouraged. . . .”413 Soon after this, “Mobility” in the Boston Gazette warned the forestallers, those “enemies to the freedom and happiness” of the country, that “Hunger will break through stone-walls, and the resentment excited by it may end in your destruction.”414 In June and July the distress was temporarily mitigated by the capture of British supplies, but prices were higher than ever. More grain, too, was coming into the market, although the farmers were still characterized as “all most as cruel as the enemy.”415
That this alleviation was only temporary is shown by later reports. For example, the committee of correspondence of Barnstable described the situation as “singularly unhappy.” Because of the interruption of the fisheries, which formerly furnished the principal commodity for commerce, trade had come to an end, as the town had nothing else to export, “a few onions only excepted.” There was little agriculture in the town, and the people were suffering “a greate scarcity of the necessaries of Life.”416
In mid-summer, the Boston committee complained that for two weeks past it “has been almost impossible to purchase a single joint of Fresh Meat which has obliged a very large Proportion of our Inhabitants to live on Vegetables only; owing entirely, as we imagine, to a parcel of avaritious Butchers who live in a few adjacent Towns, & not to the Honest & industrious Farmer.” A postscript added that “the Butchers who supply’d the town with Small Meat have intirely stopped coming to Market.”417
The shortage during the winter and spring of 1779 was due obviously enough to the failure of the supplies raised the preceding year to last through. But it is evident that the following summer did not bring the expected relief. The crops were certainly late, and apparently short as well. The letter of a “Countryman” in the Boston Gazette throws some light on the situation. He asserted that there was no general disposition among the farmers to withhold supplies, in spite of various attempts to regulate prices. The scarcity was due, so he wrote, to a variety of causes: heavy rains, which prevented the farmers from threshing their grain as early as usual; moreover, the extraordinarily wet season had prevented sheep and lambs from fattening; then, August was the cheese-making season, so little butter was being made. A week later he reported a “vast increase and amazing supply of cattle, sheep and grain” in every part of the state, and assured the towns that they need no longer worry about the danger of famine.418
If his last assertion is true, that the quantities of foodstuffs on hand were amply sufficient for all needs, they certainly were not brought into the towns. During the fall naturally there was some improvement, but even on September 17 Boston was reported to be in “a very sufferg condition,” and prospects for the winter were far from bright.419
As a matter of fact the gloomy forebodings of the fall were only too well fulfilled, and March again found the towns in trouble. John Clarke wrote: “Certain I am, that these seaports are in a forlorn situation. Subjected as we are to the inhumanity (for it deserves no milder name) of our brethern in the country, it is impossible we shd much longer have a being. One more such winter as the last would finish us.” Again, John Eliot reported that the town of Boston was “really poor,” and that unless conditions soon change for the better, “it is my opinion that we cannot subsist.” He continued: “Many have perished on our coast this winter. Many widowed families add to the distress of the North End, who were in good circumstances before the commencement of this tedious season. Most of the ready money wch was in the town the country people have drained, — such was the necessity of obtaining fuel at any price.” He also said that the effect “upon all orders of men in the seaports [was] a hearty wish for peace, which sentiment did not invade the mobility till the present time. Did the country farmers feel like the Bostonian mechanics, I don’t know what would be the consequence.”420
Just as the combination of high prices and food shortage in 1777 had produced the price-regulating acts, so this more serious deficiency called forth a legislative programme, the aim of which was the amelioration of unfortunate economic conditions. Three statutes were passed, the first of which was designed to prevent hoarding. It provided that no person, bakers excepted, should “purchase, engage, or buy” any more corn, wheat, rye, oats, barley, flour, or meal than should be sufficient to maintain his family and immediate dependents until the next harvest. Bakers were permitted to keep a three months’ stock of flour on hand. No person was to buy more “dead meat” or live cattle than would be needed for one year. The law also forbade forestalling, and buying at wholesale with the intent to sell the same goods again at wholesale. It also imposed a penalty on travelling traders. When originally enacted the law was to expire by limitation on October 20, 1779, but it was continued by subsequent renewals to July 1, 1780. In order to see that the law was enforced, the towns were directed to appoint inspectors of the market, who were expected to get the forestallers into court.421
In June this measure was reinforced by another. The preamble stated that “Whereas it has been represented to this court that many people within the state are so lost to a sense of public virtue as to withhold the necessaries of life, and to refuse the public bills of credit of this state and the United States of America,” it consequently became necessary for the legislature to act. According to this second law, families were forbidden to have on hand more than one year’s supply of grain, meal, or meat. The selectmen were empowered to confiscate any supplies in excess of this legal maximum. Furthermore, persons who refused to accept either state or national bills of credit were made liable to a fine of not less than £50, and not more than £500, or to six months’ imprisonment.422
Finally, in September, 1779, in order to prevent any unnecessary depletion of the insufficient supply of foodstuffs, the General Court passed a stringent embargo, prohibiting the export, by land or sea, of rum, wine, spirits, molasses, sugar, coffee, chocolate, linen, cotton, live stock, shoes, leather, hides, and “provisions of all and every sort,” with the sole exception of reasonable ships’ stores. To secure the enforcement of this measure, selectmen and committees of correspondence were authorized to seize wagons laden with any of the commodities enumerated, if it appeared that they were bound for the state border. The penalty for violating this law was a fine, equal in amount to the value of the goods carried out.423
These measures, designed to put a stop to engrossing, hoarding, and exporting foodstuffs, completed the legislative programme on the food problem. So far as it went, it was satisfactory, but it was by no means comprehensive enough to meet with universal approval. There was a conviction, apparently widespread, that something should have been done to check prices, which had gone up faster and higher than ever before. With corn at $4 a bushel in hard money, or $80 in paper, molasses at $20 per gallon, tea $40 per pound in the same medium, and other things in proportion,424 it is not surprising that some restraining action should have been desired. When it became evident that the General Court would not concern itself with this question, the problem was taken up by various unofficial bodies. For example, on June 16, 1779, the merchants of Boston agreed to do all in their power to prevent a further rise in prices; they worked out a new scale, which was subsequently approved by a general meeting of the inhabitants of the town. The merchants also bound themselves not to take gold or silver coin for their goods, and not to sell gold or silver in any form. Then the meeting of the inhabitants of Boston ordered the committee of correspondence to send a circular letter to all similar committees in the state, urging them to join with Boston in this campaign to reduce prices.425
As a result of this letter, on July 14, 1779, a convention met at Concord, consisting of 174 delegates, representing 121 towns, from eight counties. This gathering proceeded to work out a new scale of prices, differing in some respects from that drawn up by the Boston merchants, and the people were earnestly requested to observe this new list.426 On October 6, the convention reassembled, and agreed to a horizontal reduction of all prices.427
Theoretically, regulation by voluntary action may have held out better prospects of success than the earlier method of legislative enactment; people will sometimes do of their own accord what they cannot be made to do under compulsion. But, whether better psychology or not, this attempt failed as completely as the other. As the Concord convention itself mournfully admitted, “We have observed with extreme concern and anxiety the various Evasions” of the regulations agreed upon.428 The most striking commentary on this experiment is to be found in the prices for October, 1780, when depreciation had reached its limit. They were five times higher than those quoted a year before.
The year 1780 was the turning point in the economic history of the state during the war. Henceforth conditions in the towns steadily improved. Complaints of food shortage ceased to appear. Then, too, as the financial policy of the state was put upon a sounder basis, prices rapidly fell to something like normal. For the farmers on the other hand, who had been enjoying extraordinary prosperity, the current turned in the opposite direction, and they were soon face to face with hard times.
So far as the food question was concerned, the crisis was safely over, and conditions in the summer and fall of 1780 were normal. Partial evidence on this point is to be found in the repeal of the food embargo, on June 7, 1780. Moreover, the law against engrossing, which had been twice renewed, was allowed to expire by limitation on July 1 of the same year.429 Then, in October, Abigail Adams wrote that supplies were plentiful.430 After 1780, too, complaints of hard times in the towns practically ceased. As a matter of fact, the writer has found only one. On May 29, 1781, Pynchon recorded in his diary: “Trade in Boston in great confusion, almost stagnated; the credit of the new emission is sunk 30 per ct. upon failure of the old in its credit; all growl; some rave and stamp; others curse and swear, some at Congress, some at the General Court, some at Whiggs, others at Tories, — all at the French.”431 It would of course be unsafe to prove too much from the mere absence of complaints, but when they were so numerous during all the earlier years of the war, there must be some reason why only this one has come to light for the later years. Apparently conditions had improved so much that the towns were at least quiet.
The fact that hard money was available again is another evidence of improvement. It had never entirely disappeared, but after 1780 it became plentiful enough to attract attention. In January, 1781, a writer in the Massachusetts Spy asserted that it was not difficult to get hard money then, and in March a committee reported that the situation in general was much more promising than at any former period, and that in particular the finances were on a better footing. Finally, by January, 1782, John Pickering could write that “specie is our only currency.”432
With the reappearance of coin as the medium of exchange, paper currency began to appreciate, and prices began to fall. In the Massachusetts Spy of January 11, 1781, “Sidney” made the flat statement that the paper was appreciating. Then, in the letter referred to above, John Pickering wrote: “I think money . . . continues to encrease in its value, good Beef & Mutton 4 d a pound,Flour 24/ a & Indian corn 5/ a bushel.” A comparison of these prices with those of October, 1780, shows a truly remarkable decline. In view of these conditions, economists would expect to find evidence of an actual shortage of money. References to that condition appear in October, 1780, for the first time since the beginning of the war.433
The cause of this change is to be found in part in the increased volume of privateering, which became more and more profitable toward the end of the war. Then the presence of the French fleet off Rhode Island may have had some influence. Certain it is that the French were sending their commissaries into Massachusetts for supplies and were paying for them in hard money.434 These factors helped, but by far the most important cause was the adoption of a sounder financial policy by the state itself. For one thing, the government was making a genuine effort to pay a much larger proportion of the cost of the war through taxation. From 1775 to the end of 1778, taxes to the amount of £962,973 were voted. In January, 1779, a single tax bill was passed, calling for £1,014,422, more than the total amount raised during the preceding four years. And the total for 1779 and the first half of 1780 was £17,878,706.435 These figures to be sure must be considered in the light of the current prices. The purchasing power of £1, in paper, was not very great in 1780. Nevertheless there is evidence that these amounts did bear heavily on the tax payer. “Frugalis Monito” in the Boston Gazette said that the burden of taxes was being felt, and Abigail Adams wrote that the taxes were “enormous.”436
Another phase of the new fiscal policy of the government was the repeal of the tender laws. This was accomplished, in spite of considerable opposition, partly in January, and completely in July, 1781.437 This repeal marked the end of the various attempts to break the force of economic laws by the interposition of legislative enactments.
Thus it is clear that by the summer of 1780 the financial policy of the government, judged by the generally accepted principles of economics, had become more sound; that so far as prices were concerned, there was a return to something like normal by 1782; and that there was little or no indication of unrest in those seaport towns which had complained so bitterly early in the war. But these very gains of the financial interests worked to the disadvantage of the farmer. High taxes and low prices were precisely the very things he did not want, and the drop from inflation to normal came so quickly that he had no opportunity to make the necessary adjustments. It is significant that after 1780, practically all the complaints come from the country.
Evidence of this growing unrest begins to accumulate in 1781. For example, some of the arguments against the repeal of the tender acts came from the farmers. One “Sidney” in the Massachusetts Spy urged that it would be impolitic to repeal the measure, on the ground that it would be unjust to that large number of people who had based their calculations upon a continuance of the law. The repeal passed the House by the narrow margin of 76 to 64, while the vote in the Senate was 19 to 7.438
In May the town of East Sudbury expressed approval of the action of its representative in voting against the repeal, and instructed him to use his influence to have the act revived, on the ground that the repeal placed an unreasonable burden on the debtor.439 A gentleman signing himself “Benevolus,” in commenting on these instructions, wrote that they appeared to be the work of “Men of little property, less honesty, and deeply in debt.”440 This suggestion that some of the farmers at least were looked upon as debtors is significant in view of later developments in the state. Evidently the agricultural classes were beginning to feel the weight of the new financial policy.
In the summer of 1781 considerable interest was manifested in the disposal of the eastern lands of the state. Some of the opinions expressed reflect more or less suspicion on the part of the poorer classes regarding the attitude of the legislature on this question, and may well be considered as a part of the gathering unrest among the farmers. “The Independent Whig,” in the Boston Gazette, advised that no more land be disposed of without the express approval of the people, and that the proprietors of lands already granted be compelled to fulfill their contracts. Moreover, he urged that the state tax all wild land which had passed into private hands. Finally he suggested an agrarian law, to prevent any one person from owning more than one thousand acres.441 No such issue as this was raised during the prosperous years before 1780, and when considered in connection with other evidence of discontent, the suggestions are significant of the situation among the poorer classes and the farmers.
By January, 1782, some of the interior counties were betraying signs of more serious dissatisfaction. For example, on January 21, a town meeting in Worcester expressed its disapproval of the late excise act, and voted to instruct the representatives to try to secure a repeal of the law. At a second meeting, the town gave in detail its reasons for opposing the measure. First, “It is an indirect method of levying monies; as those who pay said duties cannot know what sum they pay, which is contrary to the genius of a free people.” Next, if duties were necessary, they should be laid on luxuries. Spiritous liquors, they asserted, were “absolutely necessary” for the farmer, “whose fatigue is almost insupportable in hay time and harvest, and for the beginners in bringing forward new townships, where they have nothing to drink but water. . . .” Then, the method of collection was expensive, and there was reason to believe that tavern-keepers would take advantage of the law to make an unwarranted increase in prices. The law was unfair, because it favored the border counties at the expense of the interior; the former could buy their supplies across the line, and so avoid payment. The tax was so adjusted that it bore heavily on the purchaser of small quantities, while the merchant would hardly feel it at all. Finally, the law was condemned on the ground that it would be “attended with many difficulties, and has a direct tendency to embarrass and obstruct trade; and it is the opinion of this town, if it is continued, it will create great uneasiness among the good people of this commonwealth, and not answer the designs of government in passing the same.”442
Two months later, the Massachusetts Spy reported a dialogue between “Mr. Smallthought,” a representative of S——, and “Mr. Trueman,” one of his constituents. “Mr. Trueman” asks when the House will adjourn, and is informed that it will probably rise that day. In some surprise he ventures to remark: “The people of Hampshire and Berkshire are assembling to complain of grievances, and matters look in that quarter as if it would not do to rise until they were settled.” “Mr. Smallthought” coolly replies that all business has been adjourned, and that no more work will be undertaken.443
That the inland counties were preparing for action of some kind was evident enough. That same issue of the Massachusetts Spy referred to a circular letter sent out by the town of Hardwick, in Worcester county, proposing a convention for the discussion of grievances. Those named dealt directly or indirectly with the farmers’ burden. In order to save expense, the smaller towns were urging that there be a judge of probate in every town, and that constables, instead of sheriffs, be allowed to serve writs. Most significant of all, complaints were being circulated concerning the processes of debt collecting.444
In accordance with this suggestion, on April 9, 1782, a meeting of 34 delegates from 26 towns in the county convened at Worcester to take into consideration “the grievances which have created great uneasiness in the minds of the Good People of this county.” The resolutions of this body, adopted unanimously, all dealt more or less directly with finance, and revealed the gathering discontent in this quarter of the state. It was asserted that much of the prevailing uneasiness was due to the failure of the government to explain satisfactorily how “the IMMENSE SUMS OF PUBLIC MONEY” collected for several years past had been disposed of. The convention demanded an immediate accounting by all who had handled public funds. Then, after urging the need of a law to permit the payment of certain taxes in commodities rather than in money, the convention adjourned to the second Tuesday in May.445
Such complaints were not confined to Worcester. In the Boston Gazette of May 6, “Senex” complained of various evils, particularly the expensive proceedings in the courts of law. “The mode of trial in use among us,” he asserted, “is the most sure and ready way to aggrandize the rich, by the oppressing the poor, to the beggaring their families.” He also charged that the lawyers, sometimes, instead of a benefit, might be “a sore curse to the state.”446 Such complaints indicate a growing discontent among the debtor classes in the state. The grievances discussed in public hint broadly at such evils as a shortage of money, debts, and the inability to pay them, and in general dissatisfaction with the whole fiscal policy of the state.
On May 14, the Worcester convention reassembled, with twelve new members from eight additional towns. Among the subjects discussed were: the disposition of the public funds, the desirability of moving the General Court away from Boston, the need of a more complete separation of the business of the courts of common pleas from that of the general sessions, and the evils of the excise law.447 The convention met again in August, 1782, but nothing was done.448
These gatherings are important, not so much for what they accomplished, because they did little beyond formulating lists of grievances, but rather for the light they throw on the causes of discontent. Excise, high taxes, judicial procedure, avaricious lawyers, all sound very much like the complaints which preceded Shays’s rebellion. The farmers were certainly involved in a period of hard times.
The causes of this unfortunate situation were not obscure. The period after 1781 was pecularily one of readjustment, marked by falling prices. During the war the farmer had experienced all the thrills of rapidly accumulating wealth. He paid off his mortgage, and his wife and daughters — so he said — forced him up to a higher and more expensive standard of living. That was all very well, while the unparalleled prosperity lasted; when it stopped, the farmer was left high and dry. As prices went back toward normal, he could not contract his scale of expenditures fast enough to keep pace, because habits of luxury, once acquired, are very hard to lose. An interesting survey of this whole period, written in 1788, apparently by one who knew, was printed in the Hampshire Gazette. In discussing the cause of and the cure for hard times, “A Farmer” gave a brief history of his own experience. He explains that at the age of sixty-five he found himself without money, whereas in former days he had been well off. Before the war, his profits from his farm were good, averaging a hundred and fifty silver dollars a year. He never spent more than ten dollars a year, all told, and that went for salt, nails, and other necessaries that he could neither raise nor make on the farm. He never bought anything “to wear, eat, or drink,” as his farm provided all the necessaries of life. He put his surplus cash at interest, or bought cattle, and so made a steady profit. After a time his wife became dissatisfied with her home-made outfit, and began to buy luxuries, such as a “calico gown,” and a “set of stone tea-cups, half a dozen pewter tea-spoons, and a tea kettle, things that never were seen in my house before.” After that his household expenses steadily climbed. Furniture and clothing of all kinds were purchased. Butter, formerly sold at market, was henceforth used at home. Lambs, hitherto sold for cash, were now eaten at home, or if sold, were exchanged for worthless luxuries. Breakfast, which formerly took ten minutes, now consumed an hour. In short, instead of saving money, as he had done at one time, his family expenses were now fifty or sixty dollars a year more than the income from his farm. This too was the situation when his family was smaller than it had been in his prosperous days, because his daughters had married. Rather than spend all of his accumulated savings, this particular farmer determined to go back to the standard of living of 1770. He resolved that in the future “No one thing to eat, drink, or wear, shall come into my house, which is not raised on my farm or in the parish, or in the country, except salt and iron work no tea, coffee, sugar, or rum. The tea-kettle shall be sold. . . .” Henceforth he was determined to live within his means.449 How he came out with his scheme of retrenchment, and how his wife looked upon the proposed reform, no one knows.
A letter from Stephen Higginson summarizes the same course of events in briefer form. “The people at large,” he wrote, “have for several years lived in a manner much more expensive and luxurious, than they have Ability to support, and their Ideas can not now be brought to comport, with their real situation and means of living.”450
The main outlines of the economic history of the state during the war stand out with considerable clearness. During the first part of the struggle, the merchants suffered, and the farmers prospered. Then, during 1780, conditions changed so that the reverse of the earlier situation prevailed. The difficulties of the farmers go far toward explaining Shays’s rebellion. The trouble began during the war, and all the characteristic features of that movement, except organized resistance to authority, were in evidence before 1783. The cause of this agrarian movement is not to be sought so much in unusually poor conditions in 1786, as in the extraordinarily good ones from 1776 to 1780. The return to normal after those “boom times,” so far as the farmer was concerned, meant chiefly the disappearance of that income which had enabled him to live more like his contemporaries in town. After an alluring taste of luxury, the farmer had to turn back, or go into debt. Very likely he did a little of both, and the discomfort which necessarily accompanied his attempt at retrenchment resulted eventually in armed rebellion, directed, significantly enough, against those forces most intimately concerned in the process of debt collecting: the lawyers and the lower courts.
The paper was discussed by several members, who gave many interesting instances of the temper and action of the people at the time of the Revolution. Mr. Barrett Wendell included in his remarks a description of some of the “smugglers’ holes” found in many of the houses of the pre-revolutionary merchants residing in the coast towns.
Mr. Samuel E. Morison, after remarking that the paper was not only interesting in itself, but a valuable contribution toward a work that he hoped to see written some day — a history of Massachusetts during the Revolution — continued as follows:
The pre-revolutionary agitation in Massachusetts, and the military events of the years 1775–1776 have been described from every angle, and in minutest detail; but practically nothing has been written on the political, constitutional, social and economic history of the Commonwealth during the period 1776–1783. Yet there is a mine of material awaiting the investigator in state, town, and county archives. The possibilities of such a work, when handled by a thorough scholar and skilful writer, may be seen in Professor H. J. Eckenrode’s Virginia in the Revolution. This book, the worthiest contribution for many years to Revolutionary history, both from a literary and a historical viewpoint, might well serve as a model for histories of the other twelve colonies during the same period.
I venture to suggest that there is perhaps one factor in the economic change about 1780 that the writer has overlooked: the political change involved in the adoption of the state constitution that year. Down to October, 1780, revolutionary Massachusetts had been governed by what was practically a unicameral legislature, elected on a low property franchise, and reflecting fairly well the wishes of the farming class, which was the most numerous. The Constitution of 1780 substituted a government of “checks and balances,” in which a Senate, so constituted as to represent wealth, had equal power with the popular house. The mercantile class thus acquired a greater influence over legislation than it had formerly possessed, and proceeded to use its power by placing the weight of taxation on the farmers and the poorer classes. The taxes at the close of the war were enormous, yet the customs duties on imported luxuries were not only very low, but more often than not evaded. Smuggling habits of the pre-revolutionary period were so strong that the most respectable Boston importers paid duties on a small part only of their cargoes, smuggling in the rest, as amusingly described in Samuel Breck’s Reminiscences. Hence the brunt of taxation fell upon land, and upon polls; over one-third of the enormous state tax was raised by poll-taxes between 1780 and 1786. At the same time, the new, vigorous state government began to distrain upon tax delinquents of the easy-going six years that had past; the creditor, which largely corresponded with the mercantile class, began to use the newly opened courts to collect debts; and through the same influences the Tender Act was repealed, so that the farmers were unable to pay their debts with the money they had received for their crops, and in many cases had their entire property sold at a mere fraction of its value in order to discharge their indebtedness to the Commonwealth or to individuals.
It may be doubted whether the mercantile class was more prosperous after 1780 than before; privateering, if I remember rightly, declined after 1779, and only two or three privateering firms — the Derbys and Cabots, possibly the Tracys — came out ahead in the end. It is my impression that the merchants began to feel the consequences of speculation and inflation after 1780; that, aided by their new political power, they began to pass on the burden to their country debtors, and that a state of things ensued like the old story about the pig that wouldn’t jump over the stile; only, in this case, the Yankee farmer was both unable and unwilling to negotiate the financial stile: hence Shays’s Rebellion.
Mr. William C. Lane read the following paper, written by Mr. Clifford B. Clapp of the Dartmouth College Library:
Every little contribution toward the critical re-reading of the early records of Harvard College will doubtless be useful. In the histories of the college by Peirce, Quincy, and Eliot there are some uncertainties in the transcription and interpretation of such records as relate to gifts. We are concerned, in the present instance, with the benefactions of Richard Baxter, Henry Ashurst, and, incidentally, Nathaniel Hulton.
John Dunton, writing of his visit to the college in 1686, reported that Richard Baxter was one of the benefactors.452 This may have been his own observation, or may have been derived from Cotton Mather’s very similar statement in the Magnalia, published in London shortly before.453 There has been slight recognition by Harvard historians of a gift by Baxter, although in Flynt’s list of donations, the dates of which were unknown when it was compiled, appears the item, as given by Quincy, “Rev. Richard Baxter, many books.”454
Baxter, himself, tells what some of these books were, and says that he was stopped from sending almost the whole of his library. A statement of his first gifts is to be found in the Baxter manuscripts in Dr. Williams’s Library, London.455 In a letter to John Woodbridge undated, but in reply to a letter from Woodbridge dated March 31, 1671, Baxter says:
I have directed to Mr Broadstreete at Boston, as my gift to your university library Dr Castles Polyglott Lexicon wth ye first of Mr Pooles 4 Volumes of ye Criticks; I had sent wth ym ye Polyglott Bible,456 but yt I understood yt my friend Mr Boyle had sent it before; I shall, if God will yt Mr Poole live to finish ym send ye other 3 Volumes of ye Criticks, or take care yt they be sent, if I live so long: For Mr Davy a Merchant hath promised them to me for your Library. The Lord direct & blesse your labours. I rest
Your unworthy Brother.
If you write direct your Letters to Alderman Ashurst at ye Golden Key in Aldersgate Street Having sent your Letter to your unkle Woodbridge, I have forgot your freinds name in Boston, & so am faine to send to Mr Broadstreete.457
In a letter to Baxter dated February 5, 1672, Governor Bradstreet wrote:
Revrend and much honred Sr.
I undrstand by yr he to my Cosen John Woodbridge that yw have sent two bookes. vz. Dr Castles Polyglott Lexicon, & the first of Mr Pooles 4 Volumes of the Criticks as yr guift to our Univrsity Library, & am informed by others that the bookes togeathr wth a łre directed to my selfe are safely arrived att Boston, the letter has not yet come to my hands, but detayned there (I suppose) upon their dayly expectacon of my comeing thithr wch hitherto, the weathr & other occac̄ons hath prevented. It will not be long I hope before I go thither & then god willing I shall dispose of them according to yr order, & in the meane tyme was willing to give yw notice of wt I undrstand concerning them, least hearing noething by this convayance, yw might thinke they were either miscarryed or wee too vngratefull for soe great a beneficence, be pleased for the prsent to accept of my humble and hearty thanks on the behalfe of my selfe & our Colony for this yr Loveing and liberall guift. . . .
Yor Loueing affectionate though
vnknowne ffriend & servt
ffebruary 5th 71.
The Reurend and my much honred ffriend mr Richard Baxter preacher of gods
Word in London
Leave this łre att Alderm̄ Ashurst his house att the golden key in Aldersgate streete to be delivered.458
John Woodbridge459 graduated from Harvard in 1664, preached at Killingworth and Wethersfield, Connecticut, and died in 1691. His mother was Mercy, daughter of Governor Thomas Dudley. Simon Bradstreet (1603–1697),460 then of Andover but later of Boston, married Anne, the “poet,”461 daughter of Governor Dudley, so that the relationship described as “cosen” would at this day be termed nephew.462
Baxter’s words do not indicate much familiarity with Harvard, but he must have long taken some interest in the college, as in other matters relating to New England. He could have derived such interest from the early graduates who returned to England, among them Benjamin Woodbridge, “first fruits” of the college and uncle of John Woodbridge of Killingworth. With Benjamin he was in correspondence in 1659.463 John Woodbridge, brother of Benjamin and father of John of Killingworth, after preaching at Andover in New England, returned to old England, where he spent the period of the Revolution, although later he again came to America.464 Leverett, Bradstreet, and others went to England on missions for the colony.465 The Rev. John Knowles, sometime minister at Watertown and deputed preacher to Virginia, whose letter partly quoted in this paper is so important, returned to England, where for nearly thirty-five years he was aid and adviser to Harvard College.466 He was a trustee of the General Court’s Humble Proposal467 hereinafter mentioned; and he was proposed for president of the college in 1672.468 John Eliot corresponded with Baxter, beginning at least as early as 1657,469 and translated and printed in the Indian tongue his Call to the Unconverted. Baxter’s much loved friend, Henry Ashurst, was, as we shall see, one of Eliot’s steadfast supporters, a servant of the Massachusetts General Court, and a benefactor of Harvard. When the king was restored, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel fell into difficulties, and Baxter, at the instance of Ashurst, used his influence with the Lord Chancellor for the restoration of the Corporation.470 These few instances may suggest the strength of the New England appeal to the interest of Richard Baxter.
When the time came that he must inevitably part with his beloved library, Baxter’s troubles became Harvard’s opportunity. The circumstances may best be related in his own words, written about 1682, when, in defending himself against the charges of want of learning and want of accuracy brought against him by another clergyman,471 he says:
About seven or eight years ago as I remember, I was accused for Preaching, and Fined by Sir Thomas Davis; and the Warrant was sent by him to Sir Edm. Bury Godfrey to levy it on me by Distress: I had no way to avoid it but bona fide, to make away all that I had: Among the rest I made away my Library, only borrowing part of it for my use. I purposed to have given it almost all to Cambridge in New-England: but Mr. Knowles472 (yet living) who knew their Library, told me that Sir Kenelme Digby473 had already given them the Fathers, Councils and Schoolmen, but it was History and Commentators which they wanted. Whereupon I sent them some of my Commentators, and some Historians among which were Freherus, Reuberus and Pistorius Collections, and Nauclerus, Sabellicus, Thuanus, Jos. Scaliger de Emendat. Temp. &c; But Goldastus I kept by me (as borrowed) and many more which I could not spare; and the Fathers and Councils and Schoolmen I was stopt from sending.474
My wife did, without any repining, encourage me to undergo the loss, and did herself take the trouble of removing and hiding my library awhile (many scores of books being so lost), and after, to give it away, bona fide, some to New England, and the most at home, to avoid distraining on them.475
Two further bits of evidence are available to show that the gift went forward and to indicate approximately its importance. In one of the most interesting of all letters relating to the early college, John Knowles writes to Governor Leverett from London, May 1, 1675:
Alderman Ashurst hath about fifty books of history for the College from Mr. Baxter. I hope he will send them by one of these ships. I desire that you keep up a good correspondency with Mr. Baxter; he is a true friend to the College. Let somebody write to him; he will hold it well.476.
The Account Book of John Richards, Treasurer of Harvard College at that period, has the following item under date of October 27, 1675:
Paid mr Peter Sergeant ꝑ order of Presidt & fellowes money 24s wh is for frait & charges of a case of Bookes from London a gift of mr Richd Baxter.477
It is useless to mourn over the fact that only about fifty books were given instead of the whole library.478 The original intention of Baxter was magnificent, and his actual donations entitle him to much honor at Harvard. It is to be regretted that his portrait, once owned by the college, was destroyed in the fire of 1764.479
Henry Ashurst, Alderman of London,480 woolen draper,481 sometime at the Three Kings482 and at the Golden Key483 in Watlirig Street, seems to have been a number of years ago almost forgotten in Massachusetts, being confused with his son Sir Henry Ashurst, the well-known agent of the colonies. Several references to Sir Henry in historical and bibliographical publications concern in reality his father.484 And yet Alderman Ashurst was for a quarter century before 1680 eminent in trade, and so known to New Englanders.485 He was Treasurer of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England; addressed by John Eliot and by the Massachusetts General Court, and made the medium of many important communications; the close friend of Richard Baxter; universally esteemed and loved; and noted for his charitable activities.486 By the Massachusetts General Court he was constituted in 1659 one of the Trustees of the Humble Proposal for the Enlargement of University Learning in New England, and was one of the three who signed the letter announcing as a fruit of the movement the donation of Judge Hill.487
Peirce, Quincy, and Eliot all fell into errors in regard to gifts by Alderman Ashurst. The true facts are now given for the first time. The earliest gift is stated to have been made in 1672. “In addition to the above,” wrote Peirce, who, however, does not state the exact year, “several hundred pounds were given to the College by others, among whom Mr. Henry Ashurst gave £100.”488 Quincy has: “1672. Henry Ashurst, 100 0 0.”489 Quincy believed that the gift was from Sir Henry, for he says, “To these benefactors, are to be added Sir Kenelm Digby, Sir Thomas Temple, Sir Henry Ashurst, Sergeant Maynard, and John Dodderidge.”490 And Eliot records: “1672 Mr. Henry Ashurst, (the same, probably, who was afterwards Sir Henry, agent of the Colony,) 100 0 0.”491 The three references to this gift in the early college records clear the matter up. In one place is recorded “Sundry Donations to the Colledge received by Capt John Richards Treaf.,” one being “1672 By mr Henry Ashurst 100 00 00.”492 The second states that on January 20, 1673, “The Overseers ordered the Treaf to pay to Dr Leonard Hoar, One hundred pound towds his Transportation from England hither.”493 The third extract is from Treasurer Richards’s Account Book under date of May 31, 1673:
Colledge Cr. ꝑ 1001 in money recd of Major Leverett (viz recd by Doctr Leonard Hoar) wh the said Leverett recd of mr Peter Sergeant by bill from mr Ashhurst as a benevolence of sundry in England to the Colledge
Colledge Dr to 1001 aboue paid to mr Leonard Hoar ꝑ order of the overseers of the Colledge towards defraying charges of transportation out of England as ꝑ order & receipt now given but dat. Febr. 10. 72.
It thus appears that the £100 received in 1672 or 1673 was not a gift from Alderman Ashurst, but was merely transmitted by him to New England.
Alderman Ashurst died in November, 1680. With regard to another gift or bequest, Peirce says: “A legacy of £40 was bequeathed to the college by Deacon William Trusdale, and one by Mr. Henry Ashworth of £100 sterling. Whether these two legacies were received, it does not appear.”494 Quincy has: “1683. Henry Ashworth, £128 0 0.”495 Eliot has in one place, “1683 Mr. Henry Ashworth bequeathed 100 0 0;”496 and in another place he says that “Henry Ashworth” sent £100.497 All these statements are derived from an entry made by Thomas Danforth between 1683 and 1699 as follows:
1683 More Donations not contained in Capt Richards Account. & are yet resting due to the Coll. . . . mr Henry Ashworth legacy of 100ff in England 128 00 00.”498
That Danforth inadvertently or through mistake wrote “Ashworth” for “Ashurst” is a reasonable conjecture, but is placed beyond doubt by a passage presently to be quoted. The difference between the statements of the amount as given by Quincy and by Eliot is explained in the Danforth entry, one being sterling, the other Massachusetts currency. It will be noted that Nathaniel Hulton’s bequest, recorded by Quincy as of this date but in fact ten years later, is put down as “£100 sterling, 130 0 0;”499 and by Peirce as “£100 sterling, being £130, Massachusetts currency.”500
It is now very interesting indeed to turn to the funeral sermon preached by Richard Baxter at the death of Ashurst, prefaced December 7, 1680, by an address beginning, “To my Worthy Friends, Mrs. Judith Ashhurst, Widow of Henry Ashhurst, Esq; and Mr. Henry Ashhurst their Son, with all his Brethren and Sisters, Grace, and Peace.”501 In the course of this sermon, Baxter recalls the work of Ashurst in behalf of the religious instruction of the Indians in the colonies, and exclaims:
O how sad will the news of his death be to old Mr. Eliots, if he live to hear it, and to his American Converts? And he hath left by his Will an hundred pound to the Colledge there, and fifty pound to their Corporation.502
The personality of Alderman Ashurst was rather remarkable, according to the accounts we have,503 and it may well have been the determining influence upon Nathaniel Hulton, who bequeathed £100 to Harvard. Baxter informs his hearers, in the funeral sermon for Ashurst, that “His last words (save his farewel, and Come Lord Jesus), were to an old Friend (Mr. Nathaniel Hulton).”504
Mr. Lane also exhibited a parchment dated 3 July, 1701 — the day after Commencement of that year — given by Harvard College to Samuel Mather.505 Appended to it is a remarkably fine impression, in red wax, of the College Seal, the earliest impression by nearly half a century known to be extant.506 The document, which is here reproduced in facsimile, is owned by the Harvard Club of New York City, and reads as follows:507
Per Integrum illud Spatium viz: Septennium Quo apud nos com̄oratus est Samuel Mather Collegij Harvardini Cantabrigiae in NovAngliâ alumnus et in Artibus Liberalibus Magister, bonarum Literarum Studijs vitæ probitatem adjunxit adeo ut nobis Spem amplam fecerit se in Ecclesiæ et Reipublicae com̄odum victurum. Quapropter hoc De illo Testimonium perhibemus, Nos quorum nomina Subscripta Sunt. Datum ex Collegio Harvardino Cantabæ Nov-Anglorum Julij 3tio 1701.
Crescentius MatherS præses
Sam† Willard Socius
Testimonial issued by Harvard College to Samuel Mather, 3 July 1704
Engraved for The Colonial Society of Massachusetts from the original in the possession of the Harvard Club of New York City