The merchant aristocracy of New England prospered greatly by evading British law, and “It is almost certain that almost no New England merchant carried on his business without indulging in smuggling on a considerable scale . . .” and this included the slave trade. This smuggling and avoidance of British law invited the navigation acts which were aimed solely at New England, and eventually dragged the other colonies into war. The same merchant aristocracy was no friend of democracy as John Adams relates below.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
New England’s Merchant Aristocracy
“The great bulk of [New Englanders] were poor, the poorest being found in the lower classes in the towns and among the frontiersmen. The strength of New England lay in her farming class of the more settled sections, but even in their case, wealth consisted almost wholly in land.
Many contemporary observers agree moreover in commenting upon their dishonesty, pointing particularly . . . to the Rhode Islanders, though one Southerner admitted that “for rural scenes and pretty frank girls” Newport was the pleasantest place he had found in his travels. Even in such a Massachusetts town as Worcester in 1755, John Adams reported that all the conversation he could find was “dry disputes upon politics and rural obscene wit.”
As a matter of fact, a great gulf had widened between the rich town merchant or other capitalist and the ordinary colonist. The more or less cultured men and women of the socially elect who had servants and fine houses, whose portraits hung on their walls, and both sexes of whom went clothed in “the rich, deep, glaring splendor” of their silks and satins, velvets and brocades, had little in common with the barefoot farmer and his equally barefoot wife, or with the artisan of the towns.
As we are apt to think of New England as thrifty, simple and homespun in contrast with the “cavalier” luxury of the South, it may be illuminating to quote what a North Carolina planter wrote home as to the life of the young girls of fifteen or so in his own social class as he found it in Boston at this time.
“You would not be pleased,” he wrote, “to see the indolent way in which” they “generally live. They do not get up even in this fine Season till 8 or 9 o’clock. Breakfast is over at ten, a little reading or work until 12, dress for dinner until 2, afternoon making or receiving Visits or going about the Shops. Tea, Supper and Chat closes the Day and their Eyes about 11.”
Wealth was increasing, but with even more rapidity it was concentrating. In Boston, in 1758, Charles Apthorp died leaving over 50,000 [pounds], and there were others equally or even more wealthy. Fortunes were fast being built up to enormous figures for that day by the privateering merchants of Rhode Island, while in New Hampshire Benning Wentworth, who had been bankrupt in 1740, had acquired a hundred thousand acres of land and a fortune in money twenty years later, and was living in princely style in a palatial mansion of fifty-two rooms.
Demagogues were not lacking to add fuel to the as yet smoldering fires. “wrote one regarding the Excise tax in Boston, “must Men therefore make them poorer still, to enrich themselves?”
“There is an overweening fondness,” wrote John Adams in 1817, “for representing this country as a scene of liberty, equality, fraternity, union, harmony and benevolence. But let not your sons or mine deceive themselves. This country, like all others, has been a theatre of parties and feuds for nearly two hundred years.”
(The History of New England, Vol. II; Revolutionary New England, 1691-1776, James Truslow Adams, Little, Brown and Company, 1941, pp. 252-254)