Friday, March 13, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- "Necessity Demands"

Parliament’s passage of the Tea Act in the spring of 1773 was the catalyst of a series of contentious events that culminated in colonial America’s war with Great Britain that began two years later and its declaration of independence in 1776.

The Tea Act granted the foundering British East India Company the right to import 18,000,000 pounds of surplus tea that it had stored in its London warehouses directly into the colonies without payment of any export tax.  The Company would use co-signees appointed by royal governors in Massachusetts, New York, and South Carolina and the proprietors in Pennsylvania rather than local merchants to sell its tea.  The American tea merchant was legislated out of business.  Even though consumers would still have to pay the tax on tea imposed by the 1767 Townshend Acts, they would be paying a price lower than that charged previously by American merchants and tea smugglers.  With the Tea Act, Prime Minister Lord North hoped to accomplish two purposes: provide motivation for colonialists to accept the Townshend Acts tax on tea and reinforce Parliament’s authority to impose taxes of any sort on the colonies.  In both particulars he failed.  Colonial merchants of every kind recognized that they, too, could be legislated out of business.  Colonial representatives objected to any tax imposed on the colonies by Parliament without their consent, regardless of whether the public benefited as to cost of product taxed.  In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, they, fearful merchants, and disgruntled consumers deprived of choice of purchase were determined to prevent the off-loading of new East India Company tea onto their docks.

Resisters in New York and Philadelphia caused appointed co-signees to resign and ship captains to return their vessels to England with their unloaded cargo.  In Charleston co-signees were also forced to resign and the cargo was left to rot on the unloaded ships.  Boston had a very different outcome.  

The tea ship Dartmouth arrived in the Boston Harbor in late November.  British law required the Dartmouth to unload and pay import duties to customs officials within twenty days of its arrival.  Massachusetts’s governor Thomas Hutchinson persuaded his co-signees, two of whom were his sons, not to resign.  A mass meeting led by Sam Adams passed a resolution that urged the captain of the Dartmouth to send the ship back to England without paying the import duty.  Governor Hutchinson refused to grant permission for the Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty.  Two additional tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, arrived in Boston Harbor.  Hutchinson also refused to allow these ships to leave.  On December 16 (one day before the twenty day deadline was reached) at a meeting attended by about 7,000 people at the Old South Meeting House, Sam Adams declared: "This meeting can do nothing further to save the country" (Boston Tea Party 1).  That evening a crowd of what later was roughly estimated to be 30 to 130 “Sons of Liberty” boarded the three East India Company tea ships.  The entire cargo -- 342 chests of tea – were dumped into the water.  This flagrant act of defiance impelled Parliament to pass several punitive measures that the colonists came to call the “intolerable acts.”  The first measure, the Boston Port Bill, closed the port of Boston until the destroyed tea was paid for.  The other three measures sought to cripple the political rights of the colony, transfer the trial of capital offenses to England, and renew the quartering of British troops in Boston.  Massachusetts would be made the example of what British authority could do to rebellious colonies.  Instead of being cowed, the twelve witnessing colonies, especially Virginia, made Massachusetts’s cause their own.

Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and other members of Virginia’s House of Burgesses saw the necessity of arousing the Virginia people “from the lethargy into which they had fallen” (Henry 176) the past three years following Parliament’s repeal of all but the one that taxed tea of the Townshend Acts.  The group decided to have the House declare “a day of general fasting and prayer” to be observed June 1, 1774, the day the Boston Port Bill would go into effect.  The House passed the resolution.  Two days later Governor Dunmore dissolved the legislative body.

Eighty-nine burgesses, Thomas Nelson among them, assembled the following day (May 27) at “The Raleigh” Tavern, formed a non-importation association, and called for a meeting to take place at a later date at which time all House members could determine what else they could do to aid Massachusetts.  Days later that meeting was scheduled for August 1 in Williamsburg.  Meanwhile, Burgesses would meet with their constituents to formulate resolutions to be presented at the general meeting.

Thomas Nelson was moderator of the meeting of free holders in his county, York.  He opened the meeting July 18 with a lengthy address that called for careful consideration of the resolutions about to be formed.

“You will know what it is to be FREE Men.  You know the blessed privilege of doing what you will with your own, and you can guess at the misery of those who are deprived of this right.  Which of these will be your case depends upon your present conduct.  We have found already that petitions and remonstrances are ineffectual, and it is now time that we try other expedients.  We must have those who are endeavouring to oppress us feel the effects of their mistakes of their arbitrary policy; for not till then can we expect justice from them” (Virginia Gazette July 21, 1774).

Nelson doubted that the colony could stop her exports without serious harm, “but that imports ought to be prohibited necessity demands, and no virtue forbids.  It is not supposed that we can do this without subjecting ourselves to many inconveniences; but inconveniences, when opposed to the loss of freedom, are surely to be disregarded” (Ibid.).

Then, Nelson the merchant spoke: “It is true, we must resign the hope of making fortunes; but to what end should we make fortunes, when they may be taken from us at the pleasure of others” (Ibid.)?

Following the address, the county of York formed its resolves.  They first defined the rights of the American colonies, coming to the ultimate conclusion that although British America was under voluntary subjection to the crown, every British parliamentary edict of taxation, custom, duty, or impost on the American colonies without their consent was illegal.  The resolves declared the Tea Act illegal and the Boston Port Act unconstitutional, the latter due to the fact that Boston was only defending “their liberties and properties” the night the tea was thrown overboard.  All imports would be stopped “with as few exceptions as possible.”  The question of stopping exports would be settled at the August convention.  Lastly, a subscription would be “immediately opened for the relief of the inhabitants of Boston” (Ibid.), under the direction of Thomas Nelson and his fellow burgess, Dudley Digges.

Nelson ultimately obtained 49 subscribers who pledged bushels of wheat and corn, barrels of flour, and shillings.  In a not altogether trustworthy record kept by Massachusetts authorities, ten subscribers’ contributions were specifically noted as not having been delivered.  This was due to no fault of Nelson.  He had the contributions of twenty subscribers shipped to Boston at his own expense.  The subscribers’ contributions averaged 4.8 bushels in wheat and 5.4 bushels in corn per person.  Nelson sent 100 bushels of wheat.

Thomas Nelson and the delegates of the various other counties met in Williamsburg August 1.  They agreed to cut off all British imports to the colony after November 1.  They would also cut off their own exports to Britain if the mother country did not redress “American Grievances” before August 10, 1775.  The Convention ended its business by electing seven of its leaders to represent Virginia at the First Continental Congress, which had been called to meet in September in Philadelphia.  They were Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison and Edmund Pendleton.  Nelson returned to York to spend what would be his last few months of peaceful living for the next four years.

Works Cited:

Boston Tea Party.”  Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.  Net.

Henry, William Wirtz.  Patrick Henry’s Life, Correspondence and Speeches. Vol. I.  New York: Charles Scribners and Sons, 1891.  Print.

Virginia Gazette (Rind) July 21, 1774.  Microfilm.