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The Beginnings of Revolutionary Thinking

7d. Smuggling

Burning of the Gaspee
Artist unkown
Rhode Island Colonists led by John Brown burn the British revenue cutter Gaspee

The British had an empire to run. The prevailing economic philosophy of seventeenth and eighteenth century empires was called mercantilism. In this system, the colonies existed to enrich the mother country. Restrictions were placed on what the colonies could manufacture, whose ships they could use, and most importantly, with whom they could trade. British merchants wanted American colonists to buy British goods, not French, Spanish, or Dutch products. In theory, Americans would pay duties on imported goods to discourage this practice. The Navigation Acts and the Molasses Act are examples of royal attempts to restrict colonial trade. Smuggling is the way the colonists ignored these restrictions.

Distance and the size of the British Empire worked to colonial advantage. Prior to 1763, the British followed a policy known as salutary neglect. They passed laws regulating colonial trade, but they knew they could not easily enforce them. It cost four times as much to use the British navy to collect duties as the value of the duties themselves. Colonists, particularly in New England, thought nothing of ignoring these laws. Ships from the colonies often loaded their holds with illegal goods from the French, Dutch, and Spanish West Indies. British customs officials earned a modest salary from the Crown. They soon found their pockets stuffed with bribe money from colonial shippers. When smugglers were caught, they were often freed by sympathetic American juries. Smuggling became commonplace. The British estimated that over £700,000 per year were brought into the American colonies illegally.

Boston Harbor
Boston Harbor, circa 1746, was home to a successful colonial merchant fleet.

As 1776 approached, the tradition of smuggling became vital to the Revolutionary cause. This encouraged ignoring British law, particularly in the harbors of New England. American shippers soon became quite skilled at avoiding the British navy, a practice they used extensively in the Revolutionary War. Soon England began to try offenders in admiralty courts, which had no juries. All attempts to crack down merely brought further rebellion. Woe to the parent who attempts to contain the child who has been allowed to roam free.

On the Web
The Navigation Acts
This quick overview of the British Navigation Acts of 1650 and 1696 restricting American trade. Colonists were angered when Britain tried to enforce them after the French and Indian War.
A History of Two Ships Named Rose
Check out the story of this fascinating ship, built in 1757, and which took part in the French and Indian War, patrolled against American smugglers, fought against the Americans in the Revolution, was scuttled at Savannah and finally rebuilt in 1970. But her story takes even more twists before she was finally adopted by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Forfeiture in England and Colonial America
A college thesis from Cecil Greek of the University of South Florida. This piece is largely about the Navigation Acts, smuggling and the penalties for smuggling. Well footnoted and actually interesting for you real history nerds. I suggest that you skip the beginning which is about England and go to "The Navigation Acts and In Rem Forfeitures." As you can probably tell, this ain't going to be a party. But if you're looking for information on Colonial smuggling and the penalties for smuggling, here's where you're going to want to be.
James Otis, "Against the Writs of Assistance," 1761
The Writs of Assistance were general warrants allowing officials to search for smuggled material within any suspected premises. Smuggling was a common practice in the colonies, and Britain used these broad powers provided by the Writs to improve the collection of taxes from properly imported goods. James Otis, who some historians credit with saying "Taxation without representation is tyranny," was among the first to defend American smugglers. Read his position paper here.
John Hancock
John Hancock, the guy with the large signature, was also one of the wealthiest men in America. Part of his income was derived from smuggling. This bio doesn't delve into Hancock's role as a smuggler, but does explore his life in decent detail.
Reasons for the Revolution
From the folks at Colonial Williamsburg, a site devoted to many of the reasons the Revolution occurred. Smuggling was one of them. Fascinating overview found here.
The Molasses Act
The Molasses Act had sticky consequences for the people of Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay in particular. Read about the chain of events caused by the enforcement of the Act which was actually passed in 1733 but not enforced until the 1760s. The people who put this page together are trying to encourage tourism to Rhode Island. Their history is OK, but their spelling merits an "F."
A wily Rhode Island packetboat captain lured the British revenue ship, Gaspee, into shallow water where the Crown vessel ran aground on a sandbar. Eight rowboats filled with patriots paddled out to the stranded ship, took the crew captive, and set fire to the Gaspee, burning her to the waterline whereupon her powder magazine exploded. When the Gaspee sank anti-American sentiment began to rise in England. Go here for more of the story.
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In 1774 the Rose, under the command of James Wallace, was sent to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island to put an end to the lucrative smuggling which had made Newport the 4th wealthiest city in America.
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