"We are hoping for a speedy Revolution, when our Trade will be put on a better Footing"
Colonial Boston Letter Ledger of William Blair Townsend,
Merchant. Containing hand-copied letters dated between November
1743 and December 1774. Townsend's letters offer an important
viewpoint from a Boston merchant on the economic causes of the
American revolution, as well as the relationships between American
and English merchants throughout the French and Indian War and the
beginnings of the Revolutionary War.
William Blair Townsend (1732-1778) graduated from Harvard in 1741 and became a prominent Boston merchant. This ledger is over 260 pages, (8.5" x 12.5") and is inscribed on the front free endpaper, "William Blair Townsend/ Domine/ 1744." Most of the letters transcribed here were written to American and British (London) merchants. Townsend's earliest were written as he tried to establish himself as a colonial merchant ("I am just now a coming into business [November 22, 1743, the ledger's first letter]"). These early letters reveal Townsend as an ambitious merchant, seeking consignments, bargaining for better prices, and promoting his business ("they shall never find me slack as to remittance," February 1745). Townsend, a participant in the North Atlantic trading system, dealt in such diverse goods as molasses, rum, tar, medicines, pitch, saddles, tallow, "hides & skins", pickled beef and pork, wine, and occasionally, slaves. For family friend Doctor Walley Chauncy, Townsend, on November 6, 1744, offered to "look out for a Negro for you & if I should light on one, shall take care according to your order that he is sound & healthy. There is none to be had at present." Twenty days later, he was successful: "I have likewise bought you a Negro Boy Hadley for £150. . . Believe he will suit you very well, he is an active good natured fellow about 23 years age, he is a Rogue & his master not choosing to correct him as was proper has been a damage to him, However his master would not have sold him to have gone to Carolina, only as I told him he was a going to you, & so he might depend upon his being treated as he deserved." Two months later, Townsend was concerned "whether the Negro I sent you suits you, for I am sure he is a capable fellow, you could not buy a fellow of his age now for Two hundred pounds." Later in April 1745, Townsend received a shipment containing rum, molasses, "& a Negro man named Paris . . . you can't but like him, to be sure he is as likely a fellow as any in Boston. He is two & twenty years of age, & is sold for no other reason, but because he is imprudent & his master being in years can't manage him. He is guilty of no vice & he is also very cheap, about a month ago I bought a new Negro Boy for myself & gave one hundred & fifty pounds for him, who is a child to this."
Many obstacles confronted the Bostonian merchant: the receipt of damaged goods ("the goods you sent me I find them considerably damaged, especially the cutlaryware," March 8, 1745); overpriced goods ("Cloth is not so good as I should have desired, for I wrote for the best, & the Scarlet is not equal to the price"); embargos due to English and French conflicts in the mid 1740s; and high freight costs associated with shipments across the Atlantic ("Freight has risen considerably since the war [War of the Austrian Succession; letter dated July 16, 1744]"). In response to the uncertainties of operating a colonial business, Townsend purchased his own trading vessel in April 1745, a sloop named "Caroline whereof Capt. Bacon is now master"; he includes a detailed description of the sloop in the ledger.
Business became much more difficult to conduct after 1767 when the English Parliament passed the Townshend Acts. Named for the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend, the acts reaped colonial resistance along with the intended tax revenue. After initial resistance in Boston, the city was occupied by British troops in 1768, which led to the Boston Massacre in March 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. Through his letters, Townsend illustrates how Boston merchants suffered from the British taxes. On August 10, 1769, he writes to another merchant, "You cannot be insensible that the difficulties we are under respecting Trade, is a great hindrance in collecting our Debts as well as vending what we have by us, we are hoping for a speedy Revolution, when our Trade will be put on a better Footing & carried on to greater advantage than it has been for some time past, at present can do but little by reason of the Stagnation of Trade among us." Later in December, Townsend apologizes that he "could not remit . . . a larger Sum", explaining that "you must be sensible it is in a stagnated state, & must continue so 'till the Revenue Acts are repealed."
That same month, Townsend took his complaints to London merchants Lane, Son, & Fraser: "you must be content to share with us in the Difficulty's of the present Day, hoping for more agreeable Times when Trade will revive on a better Foundation. . . . Have likewise inclos'd you Invoice for Sundry Merchandize to be shipt on first vesell after the Receipt of this: (provided the Acts, laying Duty's on Teas, glass &c termed Revenue Acts are Repealed . . .) for tho I have not signed the Agreement come into here respecting Importation & suffer equally with others in being unsorted with goods, yet I have a great Regard for the Interest of my Country & would do nothing that has the least Tendency to hurt it on any Account whatever; & have as strictly adher'd to said agreement as any that have signed it." In May 1770, he writes to the same London merchants hoping that "the other duty on Tea will be speedily removed, that Trade may be opened & carried on to greater advantage than for some years past, to our mutual advantage."
Townsend's struggles continued in 1774 as he again apologized to another London firm, Harrison's & Ansley, for not making a larger remittance, "Am sorry it's not my power to make a larger remittance with this conveyance [sic] as I fully intended . . . the operation of those truly cruel Acts of Parliament, has entirely disappointed me, & it is with difficulty I have been able to raise what I have remitted you at present; as I can neither call in the money I have out, nor vend the goods I have on Hand which are a large Quantity. And as the Parliament has thus stopt all our Trade & put it out of our power to pay our Debts, as usual, you cannot reasonably expect we should allow any interest while this difficulty remains; but rather with the other merchants trading to this Port join your exertions for a speedy removal of these intolerable grievances we are laboring under; which if not remov'd, must eventually prove as detrimental to the Nation, as to her Colonies."
The ledger also contains letters to such notables as Thomas Ringgold, Captain David Wooster, and various important American and English merchants. One letter dated December 16, 1773 (the same date as the Boston Tea Party) was written to London merchants Harrison's & Ansley and carried by "Capt. Scott, J. Hancock owner." Captain James Scott was a ship-master employed by Boston merchant and statesman John Hancock. The captain married Hancock's widow, Dorothy, in 1796, six years after Hancock's death.
Several pages at the end of the book are blank. Tall suede boards with front hinge starting; gilt lettering on spine, "W. B. T./ Letter/ Book." Very good condition, tight and sturdy, with a rich tan cover containing blind stamped designs, likely originally in black, which has now faded. This important ledger merits much further research.
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