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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter II: The Burden of Empire

Nothing of note in Parliament, except one slight day on the American taxes.–Horace Walpole.

There were plenty of men in England, any time before 1763, who found that an excellent arrangement which permitted them to hold office in the colonies while continuing to reside in London. They were thereby enabled to make debts, and sometimes even to pay them, without troubling much about their duties; and one may easily think of them, over their claret, as Mr. Trevelyan says, lamenting the cruelty of a secretary of state who hinted that, for form’s sake at least, they had best show themselves once in a while in America. They might have replied with Junius: “It was not Virginia that wanted a governor, but a court favorite that wanted a salary.” Certainly Virginia could do with a minimum of royal officials; but most court favorites wanted salaries, for without salaries unendowed gentlemen could not conveniently live in London.

One of these gentlemen, in the year 1763, was Mr. Grosvenor Bedford. He was not, to be sure, a court favorite, but a man, now well along in years, who had long ago been appointed to be Collector of the Customs at the port of Philadelphia. The appointment had been made by the great minister, Robert Walpole, for whom Mr. Bedford had unquestionably done some service or other, and of whose son, Horace Walpole, the letter-writer, he had continued from that day to be a kind of dependent or protege, being precisely the sort of unobtrusive factotum which that fastidious eccentric needed to manage his mundane affairs. But now, after this long time, when the King’s business was placed in the hands of George Grenville, who entertained the odd notion that a Collector of the Customs should reside at the port of entry where the customs were collected rather than in London where he drew his salary, it was being noised about, and was presently reported at Strawberry Hill, that Mr. Bedford, along with many other estimable gentlemen, was forthwith to be turned out of his office.

To Horace Walpole it was a point of more than academic importance to know whether gentlemen were to be unceremoniously turned out of their offices. As far back as 1738, while still a lad, he had himself been appointed to be Usher of the Exchequer; and as soon as he came of age, he says, “I took possession of two other little patent places in the Exchequer, called Comptroller of the Pipe, and Clerk of the Estreats”–all these places having been procured for him through the generosity of his father. The duties of these offices, one may suppose, were not arduous, for it seems that they were competently administered by Mr. Grosvenor Bedford, in addition to his duties as Collector of the Customs at the port of Philadelphia; so well administered, indeed, that Horace Walpole’s income from them, which in 1740 was perhaps not more than 1500 pounds a year, nearly doubled in the course of a generation. And this income, together with another thousand which he had annually from the Collector’s place in the Custom House, added to the interest of 20,000 pounds which he had inherited, enabled him to live very well, with immense leisure for writing odd books, and letters full of extremely interesting comment on the levity and low aims of his contemporaries.

And so Horace Walpole, good patron that he was and competent letter-writer, very naturally, hearing that Mr. Bedford was to lose an office to which in the course of years he had become much accustomed, sat down and wrote a letter to Mr. George Grenville in behalf of his friend and servant. “Though I am sensible I have no pretensions for asking you a favour, …yet I flatter myself I shall not be thought quite impertinent in interceding for a person, who I can answer has neither been to blame nor any way deserved punishment, and therefore I think you, Sir, will be ready to save him from prejudice. The person I mean is my deputy, Mr. Grosvenor Bedford, who, above five and twenty years ago, was appointed Collector of the Customs in Philadelphia by my father. I hear he is threatened to be turned out. If the least fault can be laid to his charge, I do not desire to have him protected. If there cannot, I am too well persuaded, Sir, of your justice not to be sure you will be pleased to protect him.”

George Grenville, a dry, precise man of great knowledge and industry, almost always right in little matters and very patient of the misapprehensions of less exact people, wrote in reply a letter which many would think entirely adequate to the matter in hand: “I have never heard [he began] of any complaint against Mr. Grosvenor Bedford, or of any desire to turn him out; but by the office which you tell me he holds in North America, I believe I know the state of the case, which I will inform you of, that you may be enabled to judge of it yourself. Heavy complaints were last year made in Parliament of the state of our revenues in North America which amount to between 1,000 pounds and 9,000 pounds a year, the collecting of which costs upon the establishment of the Customs in Great Britain between 7,000 pounds and 8,000 pounds a year. This, it was urged, arose from the making all these offices sinecures in England. When I came to the Treasury* I directed the Commissioners of the Customs to be written to, that they might inform us how the revenue might be improved, and to what causes they attributed the present diminished state of it…. The principal cause which they assigned was the absence of the officers who lived in England by leave of the Treasury, which they proposed should be recalled. This we complied with, and ordered them all to their duty, and the Commissioners of the Customs to present others in the room of such as should not obey. I take it for granted that this is Mr. Bedford’s case. If it is, it will be attended with difficulty to make an exception, as they are every one of them applying to be excepted out of the orders…. If it is not so, or if Mr. Bedford can suggest to me any proper means of obviating it without overturning the whole regulation, he will do me a sensible pleasure.

* On the resignation of Lord Bute in April, 1763, Grenville formed a ministry, himself taking the two offices of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There is no evidence to show that Mr. Bedford was able to do Mr. Grenville this “sensible pleasure.” The incident, apparently closed, was one of many indications that a new policy for dealing with America was about to be inaugurated; and although Grenville had been made minister for reasons that were remote enough from any question of efficiency in government, no better man could have been chosen for applying to colonial administration the principles of good business management. His connection with the Treasury, as well as the natural bent of his mind, had made him “confessedly the ablest man of business in the House of Commons.” The Governors of the Bank of England, very efficient men certainly, held it a great point in the minister’s favor that they “could never do business with any man with the same ease they had done it with him.” Undoubtedly the first axiom of business is that one’s accounts should be kept straight, one’s books nicely balanced; the second, that one’s assets should exceed one’s liabilities. Mr. Grenville, accordingly, “had studied the revenues with professional assiduity, and something of professional ideas seemed to mingle in all his regulations concerning them.” He “felt the weight of debt, amounting at this time to one hundred and fifty-eight millions, which oppressed his country, and he looked to the amelioration of the revenue as the only mode of relieving it.”

It is true there were some untouched sources of revenue still available in England. As sinecures went in that day, Mr. Grosvenor Bedford’s was not of the best; and on any consideration of the matter from the point of view of revenue only, Grenville might well have turned his attention to a different class of officials; for example, to the Master of the Rolls in Ireland, Mr. Rigby, who was also Paymaster of the Forces, and to whose credit there stood at the Bank of England, as Mr. Trevelyan assures us, a million pounds of the public money, the interest of which was paid to him “or to his creditors.” This was a much better thing than Grosvenor Bedford had with his paltry collectorship at Philadelphia; and the interest on a million pounds, more or less, had it been diverted from Mr. Rigby’s pocket to the public treasury, would perhaps have equaled the entire increase in the revenue to be expected from even the most efficient administration of the customs in all the ports of, America. In addition, it should perhaps be said that Mr. Rigby, although excelled by none, was by no means the only man in high place with a good degree of talent for exploiting the common chest.

The reform of such practices, very likely, was work for a statesman rather than for a man of business. A good man of business, called upon to manage the King’s affairs, was likely to find many obstacles in the way of depriving the Paymaster of the Forces of his customary sources of income, and Mr. Grenville, at least, never attempted anything so hazardous. Scurrilous pamphleteers, in fact, had made it a charge against the minister that he had increased rather than diminished the evil of sinecures–“It had been written in pamphlets that 400,000 pounds a year was dealt out in pensions”; from which charge the able Chancellor, on the occasion of opening his first budget in the House of Commons, the 9th of March, 1764, defended himself by denying that the sums were “so great as alleged.” It was scarcely an adequate defense; but the truth is that Grenville was sure to be less distressed by a bad custom, no law forbidding, than by a law, good or bad, not strictly enforced, particularly if the law was intended to bring in a revenue.

Instinctively, therefore, the minister turned to America, where it was a notorious fact that there were revenue laws that had not been enforced these many years. Mr. Grenville, we may suppose, since it was charged against him in a famous epigram, read the American dispatches with considerable care, so that it is quite possible he may have chanced to see and to shake his head over the sworn statement of Mr. Sampson Toovey, a statement which throws much light upon colonial liberties and the practices of English officials in those days:

“I, Sampson Toovey [so the statement runs], Clerk to James Cockle, Esq., Collector of His Majesty’s Customs for the Port of Salem, do declare on oath, that ever since I have been in the office, it hath been customary for said Cockle to receive of the masters of vessels entering from Lisbon, casks of wine, boxes of fruit, etc., which was a gratuity for suffering their vessels to be entered with salt or ballast only, and passing over unnoticed such cargoes of wine, fruit, etc., which are prohibited to be imported into His Majesty’s Plantations. Part of which wine, fruit, etc., the said James Cockle used to share with Governor Bernard. And I further declare that I used to be the negotiator of this business, and receive the wine, fruit, etc., and dispose of them agreeable to Mr. Cockle’s orders. Witness my hand. Sampson Toovey.”

The curious historian would like much to know, in case Mr. Grenville did see the declaration of Sampson Toovey, whether he saw also a letter in which Governor Bernard gave it as his opinion that if the colonial governments were to be refashioned it should be on a new plan, since “there is no system in North America fit to be made a module of.”

Secretary Grenville, whether or not he ever saw this letter from Governor Bernard, was familiar with the ideas which inspired it. Most crown officials in America, and the governors above all, finding themselves little more than executive agents of the colonial assemblies, had long clamored for the remodeling of colonial governments: the charters, they said, should be recalled; the functions of the assemblies should be limited and more precisely defined; judges should be appointed at the pleasure of the King; and judges and governors alike should be paid out of a permanent civil list in England drawn from revenue raised in America. In urging these changes, crown officials in America were powerfully supported by men of influence in England; by Halifax since the day, some fifteen years before, when he was appointed to the office of Colonial Secretary; by the brilliant Charles Townshend who, in the year 1763, as first Lord of the Treasury in Bute’s ministry, had formulated a bill which would have been highly pleasing to Governor Bernard had it been passed into law. And now similar schemes were being urged upon Grenville by his own colleagues, notably by the Earl of Halifax, who is said to have become, in a formal interview with the first minister, extremely heated and eager in the matter.

But all to no purpose. Mr. Grenville was well content with the form of the colonial governments, being probably of Pope’s opinion that “the system that is best administered is best.” In Grenville’s opinion, the Massachusetts government was good enough, and all the trouble arose from the inattention of royal officials to their manifest duties and from the pleasant custom of depositing at Governor Bernard’s back door sundry pipes of wine with the compliments of Mr. Cockle. Most men in England agreed that such pleasant customs had been tolerated long enough. To their suppression the first minister accordingly gave his best attention; and while Mr. Rigby continued to enjoy great perquisites in England, many obscure customs officials, such as Grosvenor Bedford, were ordered to their, posts to prevent small peculations in America. To assist them, or their successors, in this business, ships of war were stationed conveniently for the intercepting of smugglers, general writs were authorized to facilitate the search for goods illegally entered, and the governors, His Excellency Governor Bernard among the number, were newly instructed to give their best efforts to the enforcement of the trade acts.

All this was but an incident, to be sure, in the minister’s general scheme for “ameliorating the revenue.” It was not until the 9th of March, 1764, that Grenville, “not disguising how much he was hurt by abuse,” opened his first budget, “fully, for brevity was not his failing,” and still with great “art and ability.” Although ministers were to be congratulated, he thought, “on the revenue being managed with more frugality than in the late reign,” the House scarcely need be told that the war had greatly increased the debt, an increase not to be placed at a lower figure than some seventy odd millions; and so, on account of this great increase in the debt, and in spite of gratifying advances in the customs duties and the salutary cutting off of the German subsidies, taxes were now, the House would easily understand, necessarily much higher than formerly–“our taxes,” he said, “exceeded by three millions what they were in 1754.” Much money, doubtless, could still be raised on the land tax, if the House was at all disposed to put on another half shilling in the pound. Ministers could take it quite for granted, however, that country squires, sitting on the benches, would not be disposed to increase the land tax, but would much prefer some skillful manipulation of the colonial customs, provided only there was some one who understood that art well enough to explain to the House where such duties were meant to fall and how much they might reasonably be expected to bring in. And there, in fact, was Mr. Grenville explaining it all with “art and ability,” for which task, indeed, there could be none superior to his Majesty’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had so long “studied the revenue with professional assiduity.”

The items of the budget, rather dull reading now and none too illuminating, fell pleasantly upon the ears of country squires sitting there on the benches; and the particular taxes no doubt seemed reasonably clear to them, even if they had no perfect understanding of the laws of incidence, inasmuch as sundry of the new duties apparently fell upon the distant Americans, who were known to be rich and were generally thought, on no less an authority than Jasper Mauduit, agent of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, to be easily able and not unwilling to pay considerable sums towards ameliorating the revenue. It was odd, perhaps, that Americans should be willing to pay; but that was no great matter, if they were able, since no one could deny their obligation. And so country squires, and London merchants too, listened comfortably to the reading of the budget so well designed to relieve the one of taxes and swell the profits flowing into the coffers of the other.

“That a duty of 2 pounds 19s. 9d. per cwt. avoirdupois, be laid upon all foreign coffee, imported from any place (except Great Britain) into the British colonies and plantations in America. That a duty of 6d. per pound weight be laid upon all foreign indigo, imported into the said colonies and plantations. That a duty of 7 pounds per ton be laid upon all wine of the growth of the Madeiras, or of any other island or place, lawfully imported from the respective place of the growth of such wine, into the said colonies and plantations. That a duty of 10s. per ton be laid upon all Portugal, Spanish, or other wine (except French wine), imported from Great Britain into the said colonies and plantations. That a duty of 2s. per pound weight be laid upon all wrought silks, Bengals, and stuffs mixed with silk or herbs; of the manufacture of Persia, China, or East India, imported from Great Britain into the said colonies and plantations. That a duty of 2s. 6d. per piece be laid upon all callicoes….” The list no doubt was a long one; and quite right, too, thought country squires, all of whom, to a man, were willing to pay no more land tax.

Other men besides country squires were interested in Mr. Grenville’s budget, notably the West Indian sugar planters, virtually and actually represented in the House of Commons and voting there this day. Many of them were rich men no doubt; but sugar planting, they would assure you in confidence, was not what it had been; and if they were well off after a fashion, they might have been much better off but for the shameless frauds which for thirty years had made a dead letter of the Molasses Act of 1733. It was notorious that the merchants of the northern and middle colonies, regarding neither the Acts of Trade nor the dictates of nature, had every year carried their provisions and fish to the foreign islands, receiving in exchange molasses, cochineal, “medical druggs,” and “gold and silver in bullion and coin.” With molasses the thrifty New Englanders made great quantities of inferior rum, the common drink of that day, regarded as essential to the health of sailors engaged in fishing off the Grand Banks, and by far the cheapest and most effective instrument for procuring negroes in Africa or for inducing the western Indians to surrender their valuable furs for some trumpery of colored cloth or spangled bracelet. All this thriving traffic did not benefit British planters, who had molasses of their own and a superior quality of rum which they were not unwilling to sell.

Such traffic, since it did not benefit them, British planters were disposed to think must be bad for England. They were therefore willing to support Mr. Grenville’s budget, which proposed that the importation of foreign rum into any British colony be prohibited in future; and which further proposed that the Act of 6 George II, c. 13, be continued, with modifications to make it effective, the modifications of chief importance being the additional duty of twenty-two shillings per hundredweight upon all sugar and the reduction by one half of the prohibitive duty of sixpence on all foreign molasses imported into the British plantations. It was a matter of minor importance doubtless, but one to which they had no objections since the minister made a point of it, that the produce of all the duties which should be raised by virtue of the said act, made in the sixth year of His late Majesty’s reign, “be paid into the receipt of His Majesty’s Exchequer, and there reserved, to be from time to time disposed of by Parliament, towards defraying the necessary expences of defending, protecting, and securing the British colonies and plantations in America.”