By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
October 6, 2017
Many Colonial Virginians considered unfair British economic practices to be an infringement of their natural rights. The economic grievances of the Virginia planter class eventually became a key motivator for rebellion. As Thomas Jefferson complained in his Summary View of the Rights of British America, Virginians were at the mercy of “the British merchant for whatever he will please to allow us.”1 Jefferson argued that Virginia tobacco “planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.”2
One might think that Jefferson was exaggerating for the sake of argument, but Martha Washington’s financial papers support his description of Virginia economics. For the brief time (July 1757 to January 1759) that Martha Dandridge Custis managed her deceased first husband’s estate, she conducted business with several British merchants. Her papers illustrate how England profited at the expense of Virginia tobacco planters.
The first thing to understand is that Martha (like most Virginia planters) did not sell tobacco to British merchants, she consigned it. Her London representatives, Robert Cary & Co. and John Hanbury & Co., did not buy her tobacco up front. Instead, they sold it for her at market price, deducted expenses and their own commission, and sent her an account of her profits (if any). Consignment placed more risk on the planter than on the merchant. Apart from deciding which merchant to work with, planters had no control over the price and sale of their tobacco. Martha insisted that her representatives “endeavor to sell them for a good price,” but that was all she could do.3
Understandably, Virginia planters were often worried about what occurred overseas. A frequent complaint was that they would ship a certain weight of tobacco, only for the landwaiters in England to record a dramatically lesser weight. Some loss, from drying, etc., was to be expected, but when one planter’s shipment of tobacco lost 30,893 pounds on the Atlantic crossing, he suspected he was being scammed.4
Martha, like other tobacco farmers, was responsible for paying the taxes and expenses on her tobacco shipments. In a May 1758 account of sales from John Hanbury & Co., she paid for two Subsidy taxes, Freight, Country Duties, Primage, Entry, Cooperage in and out, Cartage, Brokerage, Shipping Charges, Debenture, Porterage, Wharfage, Lighterage, Postage of Letters, Watching, and, finally, Hanbury’s Commission. After a sale of £386.7.6, Martha earned only £115.3.10 in net proceeds.5 As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed out, the consignment system “resulted in careless and wasteful management on the part of the merchant in England, high commissions and freight rates, and chronic overbuying on the part of the colonist.”6
English merchants also supplied goods to the planters they represented, whom they often referred to as their “Friends.” This was another area in which English profit took precedence over colonial choice. It was illegal for any good to be imported to the colonies “but what shall have been shipped in England, and in English built Shipping, and whereof the Master, and three-fourths of the Mariners are English…”7 In 1758, Martha Custis placed a large order for clothing, sewing supplies, and fabrics, among other items, to Robert Cary & Company. One of her orders, for “Chince” gowns, “Best Indeen [Indian] made,” would actually have been illegal to purchase in England at that time, as Parliament had banned Indian c imports in 1721 in order to protect the English fabric trade.8 Merchants, however, could still sell chintz to the colonies, as long as it shipped from English ports and English merchants received commission.
It is no surprise that an empire would financially exploit its colonies. But for white American colonists used to a degree of privilege as British subjects, their treatment rankled. Virginia tobacco planters lived in apparent luxury, but most were swimming in debt. As one Virginia resident reported to his brother in 1754, “money is so scarce it is a rare thing to see a dollar.”9 If white colonists were truly English, why did they not receive the same financial protections as their countrymen overseas? Many revolutionaries referred to their treatment by Great Britain as “slavery,” which, while a dramatic overstatement, served to rile up revolutionary sentiment in white Virginians determined to keep a distinction between themselves and the 40% of the population that was enslaved. Few historians might turn to the financial documents of Lady Washington to study the causes of the American Revolution, and yet, within her invoices for lace and citron, insights are there to be discovered.
- Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1826), 17.
- “Additional Queries, with Jefferson’s Answers, [ca. January–February 1786],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-10-02-0001-0003.
- Martha Washington to John Hanbury and Co., 20 Dec. 1757, ViHi.
- The Report, with the Appendix, from the committee of the House of Commons Appointed to enquire into the Frauds and Abuses in the Customs, to the Prejudice of Trade, and the Diminution of Revenue (London, ), 7.
- June 1758 “Accompt of Sales,” John Hanbury to Martha Custis, ViHi.
- Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (New York, 1918), 35.
- “An Abridgement of Several Acts and Clauses of Acts of Parliament…” (London, ), 28.
- Journals of the House of Commons, v. 19 (London, 1803), 493.
- George Hume to Jonathan Hume, Aug. 22, 1754, in “Letters of Hume Family,” The William and Mary Quarterly 8 (1899): 89.