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Defying Empire

Review by: N.A.M. Rodger, All Souls College, Oxford University

Thomas M. Truxes, Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008).

The merchants of Britain’s North American colonies in the eighteenth century traded more with the West Indies than directly with the mother country, and by no means confined themselves as strictly to the British colonies as the principles of the Navigation Acts (to say nothing of French and Spanish laws) would suggest. American ports, which supplied so much of the food that fed slave and freeman alike in the British islands, often fed the French as well, and did not necessarily stop doing so in wartime. British admirals in the West Indies frequently complained of the illegal, indeed treasonable trade with the enemy conducted by British merchants, both from the islands and from America. This allowed the French to sustain their plantation economy in spite of British naval blockade, it made it possible for French privateers and warships to attack British ships and islands, and it provided them with a constant flow of intelligence. Neutral entrepôts, ‘flags of truce’ (vessels with licences to visit enemy ports to exchange prisoners of war) and collusive ‘captures’ by friendly privateers were used to cover this illicit trade. Colonial customs officials were easily bribed to issue false documents and overlook incriminating cargoes, while judges and even governors were directly or indirectly involved in illegality themselves, and deeply reluctant to investigate it.

All this has long been known to historians in general terms; Rhode Island has always had a particular reputation for trading with the enemy. There is an obvious parallel between the American merchants who defied British law by trading illegally with the enemy during the Seven Years’ War, and those who defied Grenville’s new customs regulations after the war; though British historians have been quicker than Americans to note it. Thomas M. Truxes’s new book is a meticulous analysis of New York’s treasonable trade with the enemy during the Seven Years’ War. In a tour de force of archival scholarship, he lays out in detail exactly who was involved, or at least aware (more or less everyone from the governor downwards), and precisely how they were able to ship provisions and naval stores to the French (sometimes directly on board French warships) in such quantities that the British war effort was crippled for want of them while the enemy lacked nothing. In return, the New York merchants imported sugar and other colonial products from the French islands, naturally without paying duty. Large fortunes were to be made, and money was not wanting to buy silence or complaisance. Had the trade remained discreet and modest, it might have gone on with impunity, but it grew so extensive and so flagrant that it attracted the wrath of British generals and admirals who could not be bribed, and by the end of the war enquiries and prosecutions were in train that threatened many of the wealthiest citizens of New York. In London this added to the powerful sense of a corrupt colonial elite, defying justice and policy, which government would have to bring under the rule of law. Thus New York’s illegal trade contributed directly to Grenville’s determination to impose new duties on colonial trade and (this was the dangerous novelty) ensure that they could not be evaded.

This is not, however, a simple and sensational story of how the American Revolution was promoted by organised criminals to cover their nefarious activities. Though the publisher evidently rather hopes this idea will sell the book, the author is too good an historian to be tempted. As he shows in an epilogue, there was no easy correspondence between the illegal traders of the Seven Years’ War and the rebels of twenty years later. Many of the most flagrant offenders against British law became – they would have said, remained – loyalists twenty years later. Some of them lost in the service of the crown the very fortunes which they had made by betraying it. What the author does show is that the business practices of colonial New York at every level of society were steeped in illegality, in peacetime and wartime. For George Grenville this was intolerable corruption; for the New Yorkers this was part of the liberty of Englishmen. Many of the roots of the American Revolution lie in the clash between these two irreconcilable points of view. This is an important book, therefore, as well as an exciting and satisfying one: well written and meticulously argued from extensive documentary research in British and American (though not French or Spanish) archives. It should be read by everyone who is interested in the origins of the United States.

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