THE DISARRAYED condition of the colonies in 1764—economies and societies in flux with changes wrought by war, governments trying simultaneously to adjust to international peace and cope with the effects of Indian insurrection—helps explain how the colonists reacted to British efforts to reform imperial relations. Economic circumstances and political alignments shaped by the Seven Years’ War initially governed the colonists’ responses to Grenville’s reforms; the army’s efforts to suppress Pontiac’s Rebellion complicated them. But the single most significant factor was the depression that by 1764 had fastened a clammy grip on trade in every colony, and which would not fully release it until the decade had ended.1
The sensitive antennae of the merchants in the northern ports had picked up the first signals of economic distress in late 1760, when their warehouses were crammed with the consumer goods they had acquired on credit, provided on easy terms by British correspondents. In the recent years of brisk business, large inventories had not seemed so much a problem as they suddenly became when British military spending began to taper off and the focus of operations shifted from Canada to the West Indies. But with fewer soldiers and sailors spending their pay on the mainland; with commissaries no longer buying vast volumes of American produce; and with the army no longer employing thousands of civilians to haul supplies and help build its roads, forts, and barracks, the colonists had less disposable income to spend on the cloth, Madeira, tea sets, wallpaper, furniture, and other imported goods they had come to love. At the same time, exchange rates of colonial currencies against sterling started edging upward, making it harder for the merchants to repay their British correspondents as debts fell due.2
Along with the decline in European demand for sugar and the rise in marine insurance rates that accompanied Spain’s entry into the war, in 1761 and 1762 merchants had to face problems that grew out of drought and poor harvests throughout the colonies. Fortunately Parliament’s subsidy payments continued to flow in, the army and navy still spent money to outfit Caribbean expeditions, and the conquests of Martinique and Havana furnished new markets for speculative trading: factors that moderated the recession’s impact sufficiently that in 1761 and 1762 its victims remained the small, poorly capitalized traders who had entered business during the boom years. Better-established merchants—those with capital reserves or reputations sufficient to satisfy their creditors that they could be trusted—tended to experience the first two years of the downturn as a time of stagnation, not disaster. Most traders anticipated a return to prosperity when the war finally ended and “normal” trade could resume.3
As their inventories dwindled, the larger merchants’ confidence revived; so that when their British correspondents once again began extending credit early in 1763, they unhesitatingly ordered new shipments and built up their stocks in anticipation of better times ahead. Their historical experience suggested the rationality of such optimism, for during previous wars, economic stagnation and recession had accompanied hostilities, and economic recovery came with peace. Although the last half of the present war had seen an unprecedented boom in British overseas trade, merchants had no reason to assume that the end of the war would bring anything but further prosperity. But sales did not meet their hopeful expectations, and when the Amsterdam-led panic of 1763 obstructed the flow of credit to the colonies many found themselves crushed between the rock of high exchange rates and the hard place of glutted markets. 4
The bankrupts who appeared in the northern port cities late in 1763 and early in 1764 therefore included not only the scruffy upstarts who had been failing in the preceding years, but well-capitalized firms like Scott and McMichael of Philadelphia, which stopped payment on fifty thousand pounds in debts in December 1763. In New York during 1763 and 1764, the number of court-enforced sales of property in suits for debt trebled over previous levels; in Philadelphia, the number doubled. As the stress rose, merchants often tried to survive by gambling on ever-riskier ventures in the hope of making the great profit that would clear them of debt. Thus, for example, in 1764 Thomas Riche of Philadelphia formed a partnership with a New York merchant he barely knew in order to ship provisions to the French South American colony of Guiana—a flagrantly illegal enterprise, but one that promised fabulous returns. Riche, who had amassed a fortune as a wartime trader to the French West Indies only to suffer serious reversals in 1762 and 1763, hoped to make a killing and satisfy his creditors, but he only succeeded in delaying the day of reckoning. It would not be until 1770 that he could wipe the slate clean, and then it cost him nearly everything he had. He died raising sheep on a farm in New Jersey.5
Thomas Riche acted in accord with a principle that later businessmen would erect as a financial axiom: “If you owe your banker a thousand dollars and have five hundred to pay him, you’ve got a problem; if you owe your banker a million and you don’t have a nickel, he’s got a partner.” The very size of Riche’s debts helped keep him in business long after a smaller, more timid operator would have landed in debtor’s prison. Many merchants, less big and bold than he, failed outright during the 1760s. Others reduced their operations. A few took Riche’s kind of gamble and succeeded. What the depression meant was not universal bankruptcy, but rather that the ratio of failures to successes, always high in the colonies, rose higher than ever. So long as credit remained scarce, fewer prospective merchants could enter business to replace the unlucky or unskilled ones who failed. In the meantime large troubled firms like Riche’s— those able to use their level of indebtedness to buy time or pry more loans out of their creditors—absorbed much of what credit remained available while they survived, and made bigger holes in their local economies when they fell.
For it was not only British merchants and financiers to whom American traders owed money. When a provision merchant like Thomas Riche went broke, his creditors included shipwrights, carpenters, coopers, sail-makers, cordwainers, block-makers, victuallers, tailors, shopkeepers, ship chandlers, and all the rest of the small businessmen and artisans with whom he kept accounts. When they in turn could collect only shillings on the pound, they were correspondingly less able to meet the demands of the people with whom they did business. Once they could no longer hire journeymen and laborers, or pay wages to their housemaids and cooks, urban unemployment rose. At the same time, military veterans, sailors, and ex-privateers tried to reenter the ports’ labor markets, further depressing wages and increasing overall levels of poverty. Thus the failure of a bank in Amsterdam could cause a credit contraction in London that would in turn bankrupt scores of merchants in colonial port towns, threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of middling American artisans and petty entrepreneurs, throw thousands of colonial laborers and small craftsmen out of work, and render the lives of everyone who depended upon them miserable. These were cyclical, not structural, increases in business failure, unemployment, and poverty: an early, severe, prolonged version of the kinds of readjustments to peace that twentieth-century economists see as routine. But because the people who experienced them in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia did not necessarily understand that these were temporary conditions, and because they followed so closely on a period of high employment, high wages, and prosperity, they made life for everyone—from a merchant baron like Thomas Riche to the anonymous woman who washed his shirts—more stressful, more tenuous, than ever.
In varying degrees, all of the major northern ports were suffering in 1763 and 1764, and none of them had yet seen the worst of a depression that would deepen through 1766, moderate in 1767, and then plunge into even deeper distress.6 Boston felt the pinch first, and worst. Already in 1760 its merchants had formed a Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce in response to the downturn’s beginnings. By 1763 the organization had dedicated itself to lobbying Parliament for special treatment in the hope of reviving their trade. The city’s expenditures on poor relief, which had never exceeded the equivalent of eight hundred pounds sterling before the war, reached nearly two thousand pounds in 1764. In New York the presence of the army’s headquarters, military contracting for the West Indies expeditions, and shipbuilding that remained strong even after the end of the conflict all delayed the onset of the recession, but by early 1764 New York merchants were complaining of cash scarcity, crushing exchange rates, and uncertainty. “Everything is tumbling down,” one wealthy Manhattanite wrote, “even the merchants themselves.” Philadelphia was fortunate in that the demand for flour in the West Indies remained strong well into 1763, so that the continuing vigor of the provision trade could offset the disastrous state of the market in dry goods, which collapsed in late 1760 and stayed flat for a decade. The disintegration of the West Indies trade in early 1764 inaugurated the greater collapse to which Thomas Riche responded with ultimately fatal ingenuity. Shipping clearances fell, the price of flour plummeted, currency vanished from circulation, merchants struggled to stave off creditors—and the Overseers of the Poor complained that the almshouse was so overcrowded that they were cramming as many as six beds into each tiny room.7
The northern countryside experienced less distress than Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but the effects of recession extended at least to the limits of each city’s commercial hinterland. The degree to which farmers suffered depended on the degree of their integration into the Atlantic market, but in general all those who had prospered during the war by selling the army their services (mainly in the middle colonies and New England), their grain (in the middle colonies), or their beef and pork (in New England) found that they were earning much less money. Rural storekeepers, pressed by the urban merchants who supplied consumer goods on credit and took produce in return, tried with new insistency to collect the debts their customers owed them. The less a farmer depended upon storekeepers, the lower his burden of indebtedness, the less the depression meant to him. Price movements in rural Massachusetts during the postwar years suggest that the droughts of 1761 and 1762 influenced most New England farm families’ lives more than anything that happened in Boston, let alone London and Amsterdam. Even so, prices for agricultural commodities diminished enough during 1763 and 1764 to suggest that the postwar depression could be felt throughout a province that was by no means dominated by commercial agriculture. Where commercial farming dominated, as in the Delaware and Hudson Valleys, the effects of the depression were of course palpable. But even there farmers still had at least a limited option of “retreating into subsistence,” or growing crops for consumption and local exchange rather than for sale, until prices recovered.8
In Virginia and Maryland, the tobacco provinces where commercial agriculture had been longest established in America, however, subsistence farming offered no safe haven of retreat. In the tidewater counties along the Chesapeake Bay, the effects of the postwar depression were as severe as in any northern city. Tobacco planters had been experiencing serious difficulties since about 1750. First, changes in international markets had destabilized the normal fluctuations in tobacco price levels, to which planters were accustomed; then, during the war, a series of poor crops had aggravated problems of selling in France’s monopoly tobacco market. Despite these circumstances, however, the easy credit policies of London merchant houses encouraged the gentry to continue consuming high-quality English products. Planters whose detailed knowledge of tobacco production was more than matched by their ignorance of international markets, and even of the balances in their own accounts, mortgaged crops not yet planted to support extravagant tastes. Then came the escalation in exchange rates of 1762 and the planters’ sudden discovery that their English merchant-creditors were no longer willing to let them defer payment by offering credit against the sale of future crops. Thus one planter, whose service against the French and Indians had scarcely prepared him to do battle with his London creditors, greeted the news of the Treaty of Paris only with expressions of hope for relief: “We are much pleased at the Assurances of Peace which ’tis to be hoped will be of long continuance, and that the Tobacco trade will fall into an easy and regular Channel again, to the Mutual advantage of all concerned.” 9
That Colonel George Washington reacted in such an evidently prosaic way to the most glorious peace in British history might seem surprising, but in fact his comment represented the views of his class as accurately as it reflected his own recent experiences and concerns. Since the heady moment when he married Martha Custis in 1759, combining their estates into one of the preeminent holdings in northern Virginia, everything Washington touched had turned to brass. He had failed repeatedly to grow profitable tobacco crops. In London his leaf had acquired an unshakable reputation for mediocrity. Meanwhile the expenses of maintaining a great planter’s lifestyle, while keeping up a slave labor force and several plantations, had proved unrelenting. His own debtors—former comrades-in-arms who unhesitatingly touched him for loans, neighbors with whom he ran accounts, tenants who owed him rent—were slow to pay, and sometimes never did; yet he was too tightly bound by the expectations of gentlemanly behavior to refuse a loan when asked, or to press a debtor insistently when payment fell due. By 1763 Washington found himself deep in debt, doubting that he would ever extricate himself by growing tobacco, and casting about to find some way out of his predicament. In these ways he was absolutely typical of his fellow planters, and indeed differed only in that he had begun making efforts to economize. As a result Washington would never run into such spectacular trouble as his fellow colonel, William Byrd III of the 2nd Virginia Regiment. By the time Virginians first felt the bite of the Amsterdam panic in 1763, Washington was probably not far over two thousand pounds in debt, but Byrd was well on his way to racking up the twenty thousand pounds in obligations he would never pay off. 10
The planters’ responses to economic stress in some ways resembled those of the northern merchants. Like Thomas Riche, who preferred taking greater risks over liquidating assets to pay off his creditors, most planters tried to avoid selling land or slaves to reduce their debts, but instead looked for other ways to free themselves from their creditors’ grasp. Some, frustrated with tobacco as a crop that seemed only to lead to greater debt, began looking for another staple to raise. Others experimented with plantation enterprises. Many plunged into land speculation, which had always provided Virginia gentlemen with a large part of their income, and never more so than when tobacco prices went slack.11
Washington tried all three methods. In 1764 he began experimenting with growing wheat, the crop that was fast displacing tobacco across the Chesapeake in Maryland—cautiously at first, then more confidently until he abandoned tobacco in its favor. He also began distilling brandy from peach cider: no longer just for home consumption, but for sale. But most of all he speculated in land. On the same day that Chippewa warriors seized Fort Michilimackinac ( June 3, 1763), the master of Mount Vernon joined eighteen of his fellow gentlemen in a new company, limited in membership to fifty shareholders and formed to acquire the rights to lands on the Mississippi River. Many of these partners had previously been associates in the Ohio Company. But that venture, organized to claim a mere 200,000 acres, had been beggarly by comparison to this one. Each member of the new Mississippi Company expected to receive 50,000 acres of the nearly 4,000 square miles (2,500,000 acres) that the company proposed to acquire. To that end, each partner subscribed money to support an agent to represent the company in London until he could persuade the Privy Council to make the grant. Meanwhile, Washington was becoming even more deeply engaged in another, local speculative scheme. His purpose was to acquire the Great Dismal Swamp—perhaps 650 square miles of aptly named wetlands on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. He had convinced himself that this, the last large unoccupied tract near the coast, would yield tens of thousands of acres of salable land if it could be drained. Thus he spent much of the fall of 1763 looking over the territory, persuading others to become partners in the venture, and arranging for the preliminary surveys.12
Although Washington was unusually active as a land speculator, there was nothing atypical about speculation as a response to hard times in the early 1760s. Even before the Mississippi Company and the Great Dismal Swamp venture were getting under way, the Ohio Company had dispatched its agent to London in an effort to reanimate itself. Simultaneously its old rival, the Loyal Company, was trying to revive its prewar claim to 800,000 acres in the Kentucky Country, south of the Ohio River. And these were only the largest partnerships: individual gentlemen and informal associations of kin continually speculated in lands closer to home, if only because there was little else in which to invest that seemed to offer any prospect of return. Nor were Virginians the only colonists who saw speculative ventures as reasonable responses to a troubled postwar economy. Prominent and not-so-prominent colonists everywhere engaged just as eagerly in land speculation, with the same motives—as a gamble against adversity, a chance to regain ground lost or slipping away. Examples of these efforts can be found in most colonies, but two of the most telling ones come from Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
In December 1763, before he left Philadelphia on the complex mission intended to serve the interests of Sir William Johnson as well as himself, George Croghan arranged to represent the interests of a dozen or so of Pennsylvania’s biggest Indian traders—the “Suffering Traders,” as they called themselves in light of the losses sustained in 1754 and again in 1763. Once in London, Croghan not only advised Halifax on his comprehensive plan for the reform of the Indian trade but tried to persuade the Board of Trade to grant him 200,000 acres in the Mohawk Valley in exchange for his tract at the Forks of the Ohio (now beyond the Proclamation Line). Because the board refused to approve his application for the compensatory New York grant and because it soon became clear that Parliament would never make a special appropriation to cover the Suffering Traders’ losses, Croghan shifted his ground, advocating a new colony on the east bank of the Mississippi, between the Illinois and the Ohio Rivers. By the time he sailed for America in September 1764, he had evolved a plan that would transform the Suffering Traders’ petition for compensation into a claim for western lands in the projected colony of Illinois, and he had made the necessary London contacts to sustain the project in his absence. One of these men was the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Benjamin Franklin, who would become a leading proponent of the Illinois venture. Another was the Right Honorable Anthony Bacon, M.P. for Aylesbury, merchant, inveterate pursuer of American profits, and architect of the Currency Act of 1764. For the next four years Croghan would devote himself, tirelessly if without success, to promoting the Illinois enterprise. He would remain committed to it, in one form or another, for the rest of his life.13
While Croghan was using his relationship with Sir William Johnson to advance his and the Suffering Traders’ case before the Board of Trade and Privy Council, a New Englander—less flamboyant but even more tenacious—was flogging his own contacts in pursuit of an equally ambitious speculative claim. Major General Phineas Lyman had commanded Connecticut’s forces from 1755 through 1762 and at the end of the war was indisputably America’s most experienced provincial officer. When the survivors of the Havana expedition, returning from a hellish campaign to face diminished prospects at home, met at Hartford in mid-June 1763 to form “a Company of Military Adventurers, for obtaining a Grant of Lands sufficient for a Government, in some of the conquer’d Lands in America,” Lyman had been the consensus choice to represent them in London. In typical New England manner, each man subscribed a small amount (two dollars initially, three dollars later) to support Lyman’s efforts. Modest as it was, in the end this came to no insignificant sum, for by the middle of 1764 more than two thousand men—veterans, their heirs, and relatives—had taken shares in the company. By November 1763, the general was already in London, knocking on doors and making his case to anyone who would listen for a major grant to the New England veterans. The proclamation’s promise to reward “the conduct and bravery of the officers and soldiers of our armies” with land bounties boosted Lyman’s hopes, but he was still knocking and explaining when Croghan left in late 1764. Indeed he would continue to do so for almost a decade, plying as best he could his friendship with the British officers under whom he had served. Finally, in 1772, he would receive assurances that the grant he sought would be approved, and he returned to Connecticut. In 1773 he would head a major migration of New England veterans, their families, and others who had joined the venture as associates, to the lower Mississippi Valley, in the new colony of West Florida.14
Croghan’s Suffering Traders were a handful of substantial Philadelphia merchants, and their venture would eventually spawn speculative companies with rich, influential shareholders on both sides of the Atlantic. Lyman’s Military Adventurers were much more numerous, poorer, obscurer men, all from New England and many interested in actually settling on the lands they hoped to acquire, not just in selling them for profit. But these otherwise dissimilar groups were alike in that the members of both formed them during hard times, in the hope of improving their fortunes. As Riche had looked to Guiana as a place where risks, boldly undertaken, might produce fabulous rewards, both large and small speculators regarded the newly conquered lands as fields of opportunity that might deliver them from the constraints of a constricted postwar world.
Such perceptions and responses stretched not only from city to country and from region to region within the colonies, but across the sea as well. Great Britain was in economic straits of its own, in some ways worse ones than the colonies. In 1763 and 1764 streams of migrants were already flowing out of London, the depressed rural areas of the northern English counties, and Scotland, all in search of relief: the first freshets of what over the course of a decade would swell into a flood of British emigration. The willingness of migrants—the better-off families searching for farms to buy, the poorest individuals selling themselves as servants to escape pauperization—to move to North America intersected with the availability of land in the new colonies, making speculative ventures attractive to Britons with good connections and narrowing investment options.15 The war, in effect, had radically contracted the Atlantic world by making America critical to Britain’s welfare, stepping up the pace of interaction between colonies and metropolis, encouraging regularized communication, and stimulating transatlantic commerce. Recession contracted that world in another way as the promise of cheap land encouraged the flow of population westward in the direction of America, and hope.
The postwar speculative surge could, under the right circumstances, forge links between investors on opposite sides of the water, but the recession increased the likelihood that transatlantic relationships would be competitive, potentially antagonistic, ones. Within North America, hard times tended to make conflicts over contested lands—for example, those in the area between the upper Connecticut Valley and Lake Champlain that both New York and New Hampshire claimed, or those between the Berkshire Hills and the Hudson that New York and Massachusetts disputed—more anxious, and ultimately more ferocious, than ever. Thus if land speculation and frontier settlement were nothing new in British America, the context in which they now occurred altered their character and raised the stakes for the participants. Much more directly than before the war, changes in the metropolitan economy as well as shifts in imperial policy could influence even remote frontier regions in North America.
Influence, not control: a critical distinction. Vast stretches of the postwar backcountry were simply ungovernable, and as migration to the frontiers increased disorder would only grow worse. This was particularly true in the two Carolinas, although for different reasons in each. In North Carolina the problem grew from an impoverished economy and a chaotic land-distribution system that permitted British land speculators to dominate the real-estate market, inviting petty profiteering by their agents and local officials, and making it difficult for squatters to obtain clear titles to farms they had already improved. Migration into the piedmont during the last years of the war and in the early 1760s brought to the province families attempting to better their circumstances and hoping to escape Indian raids, and soon bred antagonism between the small, insecure, low-country elite and a growing population of backcountry farmers. Finally, while the war had brought high taxes to North Carolina, it had not created prosperity there, as in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England; and the postwar recession rendered this chronically disorderly, poor province less stable than ever.16 In South Carolina, ironically, similar problems arose from the conjunction of much more favorable circumstances.
South Carolina experienced no significant Indian trouble after the conclusion of the Cherokee War and thus avoided heavy continuing taxation. When the southern European market for rice remained strong and British demand for indigo held steady through the 1760s, the colony became the single shining exception to the rule of depression in British America. In 1763 and 1764 the only significant problem the low-country merchants faced was the surplus of slaves on the local market, a legacy of the last years of the war when low prices had encouraged them to acquire the large inventories that they now had to clothe and feed until prices climbed to profitable levels. One reason for their sanguine outlook had been the “vast number of people setting down upon our frontier lands,” who, the Charleston merchant (and former provincial officer) Henry Laurens believed, would “with a little management . . . take off insensibly a [slave] cargo by one or two in a lot.” As it happened, Laurens and his fellows miscalculated the backcountry settlers’ interest in acquiring slaves. They were right, however, about the boom in backcountry population, which South Carolina’s liberal land-granting policies helped to promote.17
Laurens understood what was going on in the backcountry because he speculated in land there, a pursuit that set him apart from most other members of the low-country elite. Unlike their counterparts in Virginia, South Carolina’s planter gentry did not promote the development of the frontier. The success of their staple crops of rice and indigo freed them from the necessity of looking sharp for supplementary sources of wealth, and their instinct was to minimize the political influence of the backcountry whenever possible. Virginia’s speculating gentlemen readily created counties and fostered the power of new county leaders (who tended to be their own sons, sons-in-law, and nephews), but South Carolina planters feared that the burgeoning white population of the backwoods would dominate the colonial assembly, and so refused to establish new units of political representation. If this was a politically expedient practice, it was hardly a wise one. As frontier settlements mushroomed in the years following the Cherokee War, the absence of courts in the west became as much a grievance as the increasingly grotesque underrepresentation of the frontier districts in the assembly.
Already by the end of the war, and increasingly thereafter, the backcountry in both Carolinas was a magnet for all kinds of disorderly elements: debtors in flight from creditors, escaped convicts, military deserters, fugitive slaves, runaway servants, deerskin hunters, and outlaw gangs that settlers with property and families to protect called “banditti.” The coincidence among a lack of county courts, a postwar recession spurring migration in search of opportunity, and the southward movement of refugees from the more dangerous frontiers of Pennsylvania and Virginia created serious problems of law and order along the whole length of the Carolina backcountry. At first, when the roving thugs whom most propertied, “respectable” frontier settlers would have preferred to see locked up or hanged could neither be arrested (because there was no sheriff) nor prosecuted (because there was no court), they formed posses, held kangaroo courts, and applied vigilante justice. Later, when the low-country elites persisted in ignoring their pleas for county governments, those same respectable backwoods farmers began to organize themselves politically.
The so-called Regulator movements that would emerge in the second half of the 1760s on the two Carolina frontiers would take different forms, depending on conditions in each province. South Carolina’s Regulators would tend to concentrate on suppressing banditry and seek to develop ties with the low-country elite, while those in North Carolina would assume an antiauthoritarian tone and move toward armed resistance, leading the coastal gentry to identify the Regulators themselves as criminals. In both provinces, however, by 1763–64 pronounced divisions were developing between east and west, low country and backwoods: a pattern of sectional antagonism and mutual suspicion that would strongly mark the politics of the lower south for the next decade and color the response of those provinces to Grenville’s reform program and all the British measures that would follow it.
The emerging sectional divisions in the Carolinas were new and unfamiliar, but in other colonies where sectional strains prevailed before the war had muted their expression, old patterns reemerged in the first years of peace, often in robust form. This was the case in Connecticut, where the political fault line split the colony’s poorer, evangelical east from its richer, Old Light and Anglican west; in Rhode Island, where a mercantile faction centered in Newport competed for power with a mercantile-and-farming faction centered in Providence; and in New York, where Albany-based merchants and landed gentry joined farmers from the east end of Long Island (a group largely made up of Presbyterians and other dissenters, collectively called the Livingston Party) to oppose the faction of New York City–centered merchants (largely Anglicans, known as the De Lancey Party) that had controlled the provincial assembly during the war. Only New Jersey, long riven by internal tensions between proprietors and farmers and split between east and west, came out of the war with less sectional division and an elite more united and evidently in control.18 Other colonies’ political alignments were harder to plot on a map, but they generally reflected old patterns, often intensified after a long wartime lull.
In Maryland and Pennsylvania it was the familiar politics of deadlock. As proprietary colonies, both had developed polarized systems that opposed the interests of the proprietors, who controlled land grants, made executive appointments, and maintained blocs of votes in the assemblies, to those of antiproprietary parties that generally held legislative majorities and battled the proprietors for control. Maryland had virtually sat out the war because its governor could find no common ground with the antiproprietary party that controlled the lower house; now the colony remained locked in intractable conflict over the extent of proprietary powers. Pennsylvania’s paralysis, by comparison, had been intermittent.
As we have seen, at the war’s beginning the antiproprietary Quaker faction that controlled the assembly resisted the creation of military institutions until Indian and French raids had devastated the province’s frontiers. In 1756 the Quaker grandees had withdrawn from politics, ceding leadership to Benjamin Franklin and others who lacked their pacifist scruples; those new leaders in turn had used the war to beat concessions out of the governor and the Penn family over taxation and related issues. With the return of peace and the outbreak of Indian insurrection, the proprietors moved to seize power in the assembly by allying themselves with westerners and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians against the antiproprietary party, which remained centered in Philadelphia and the eastern counties. This effectively revived Pennsylvania’s furious prewar factionalism, lending it new sectional and religious hues. In 1763 and 1764, as the resurgent proprietary interest gained seats in the assembly, the antiproprietary party mounted an effort to turn Pennsylvania into a royal colony. As in 1755 and 1756, the defense of frontier settlements once more took second place to political infighting.19
Governors elsewhere retained more political control than in Maryland and Pennsylvania, albeit in different degrees and for different reasons. Georgia’s royal governors ruled without effective opposition because the colony was young, militarily feeble, and unusually dependent on Britain. In New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth governed with a hard and grasping hand: his family had fixed its grip so tightly on the province’s resources, trade, government posts, and land-distribution systems that no rival could mount a challenge without having his efforts repaid with political annihilation. Virginia and Massachusetts also had comparatively strong governors capable of evoking cooperation from their assemblies and limiting challenges to royal authority. In both cases, however, the potential for opposition existed in ways unknown in Georgia or New Hampshire.
Virginia’s gentry, as we have seen, was experiencing significant strain as tobacco declined and debt mounted. Because the elite maintained substantial class solidarity and the House of Burgesses remained unfactionalized, certain kinds of challenges could turn the entire House against the governor. Thus while Governor Fauquier generally enjoyed an admirable record of success in dealing with the Burgesses from 1758 through 1763, their cooperation was never guaranteed. He discovered exactly how conditional his leadership was in January 1764, when he urged the House to appropriate money for frontier defense but refused to allow them to issue paper currency to fund it. With virtual unanimity the legislators refused to comply, forcing him to prorogue them without forts or troops to preserve the backcountry from Indian attack. In Massachusetts, by contrast, Governor Bernard had also enjoyed considerable success in controlling the General Court: not because he could summon the cooperation of a unified elite, but because the elite was factionalized in such a way as to make it more or less manageable. By the careful distribution of limited patronage resources Bernard and his lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson, kept up an effective court party in the General Court: the firm (if not unassailable) majority that had withstood the assault of the country party and sustained the prerogative power in the writs of assistance controversy. In early 1764 signs of brittleness in the court party’s majority appeared, but the fact remained that the opposition was far from breaking Hutchinson’s and Bernard’s hold.20
Throughout the colonies, then, a troubled transition to peace left political life and alignments in flux. Despite their complexity, most of the conditions that prevailed in early 1764—growing sectionalism in the lower south, reversion to prewar patterns of conflict and sharp revivals of factionalism in most other colonies, increasing instability or deadlock in the politics of all except the minor provinces of Georgia, New Jersey, and New Hampshire—derived from the war and its aftermath. The return of peace found the colonies as diverse as ever and, in the absence of a common enemy, diverging once more. Most were responding, according to local conditions and alignments, to what the war had done (increased public debts and raised taxes) and to what the recession was doing (making revenues scarce). In those colonies that had been most heavily engaged in the war effort, a hard-won political stability was vanishing. In New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, war governors had used large defense budgets, parliamentary subsidies, appeals to patriotism, and the expanded patronage resources that the war had provided to build effective court parties. In Pennsylvania the antiproprietary party, a country faction, had in effect used the war to co-opt the governor and dominate provincial politics. In Virginia the governor had employed patriotic arguments and parliamentary reimbursements to gain the cooperation of the entire provincial elite. Everywhere except Maryland, the appeals of governors to the colonists’ instincts for patriotism had minimized public contentiousness from 1758 through 1762. But by 1763 and 1764, things were changing fast.
A half century earlier in England, Sir Robert Walpole had laid hold of the same elements that helped to stabilize colonial politics during the last half of the Seven Years’ War—patriotism, patronage, and self-interest— and from them had fashioned an engine of “influence” to control Britain’s unstable political system. He succeeded in creating a stable parliamentary regime largely because a funded national debt and standing armed forces allowed him to perpetuate levels of patronage previously possible only in time of war. Once Walpole had that indispensable resource in hand, everything else could be accomplished through the political management (in the language of his opponents, the corruption) at which he excelled. But the colonies in the 1760s offered no possibility of duplicating Walpole’s feat. Colonial public debts could not be funded and made perpetual, but had to be paid off by the retirement of currency issues within stipulated numbers of years. Colonial governments, obligated to continue taxing their citizens at very high levels so long as war debts remained unretired, withdrew money from circulation and deflated colonial economies even as Parliament’s subsidies ended and the worst recession in Anglo-American history strangled colonial commerce. Moreover, unlike Britain’s regular army and Royal Navy, provincial armies were disbanded upon the return of peace, depriving governors of the commissions and supply contracts that had been the lifeblood of political influence during the war.
Thus the return of peace, the end of transfer payments from Britain, and the onset of the recession all weakened the ability of governors to suppress opposition and defend the prerogative, at the very moment that provincial tax burdens stood at their highest levels ever. Under these new circumstances, the arguments from patriotism that governors had used to good effect during the war lost resonance. Without an immediate and transcendent common cause to serve, local concerns loomed larger in the minds of colonial assemblymen, and local conditions cried out more loudly than the abstract needs of an empire that was, to all appearances, no longer at risk.
Given such losses of political capital, there was no way for governors like Francis Fauquier and Francis Bernard—men ambitious for the empire and earnest to manage colonial politics in Britain’s best interest— to maintain the level of control they had achieved between 1758 and 1762. The reemergence of old obduracies, the reappearance of factionalism, the intensification of dissent as opposition groups maneuvered for public support and contended for scarce patronage: these could neither be stopped, nor long delayed.
And yet the meanings of the renewed conflicts and the appearance of new political configurations were obvious to no one. Like their masters in London, the governors did not understand that their influence was ebbing in the postwar colonies because in some realms it persisted, because the recent trend had been toward tighter integration between colonies and metropolis, and because the political leaders in their assemblies reacted uncertainly to the introduction of the imperial reforms. Indeed the ambiguous character of the colonies’ responses to Grenville’s program prevented imperial officials from understanding, for what would turn out to be a dangerously long time, what was really going on in America.