Defying Empire: Trading With The Enemy

A new book on the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War in Europe) highlights the role New York merchants played in trading with the French enemy. Thomas M. Truxes’s Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York gives an engaging narrative account of New York City’s heavy involvement in a thriving, forbidden commerce with the French enemy and how the suppression of that trade by British authorities contributed to the coming of the American Revolution. The book was recently named a finalist for the Society of American Historians’ prestigious Francis Parkman Prize.

Readers will recognize elements of our current economic situation in the story of how a few ambitious businessmen put their personal financial interests ahead of their country in order to enrich themselves. Upstate New York served as a major center for the French and Indian War military activities beginning when the remnants of the disastrous Braddock expedition, after having destroyed most of their equipment and supplies, retreated to Albany which Truxes describes “with its fort, guns, and small garrison of regular soldiers, the last physically secure place along the northern frontier.”

Upstate New York then suffered much of the brunt of the ensuing war as all the while New York City traders continued to deal amicably with the French on the high seas. With French, British, and American economies increasing linked through trade, Truxes makes a convincing argument that New York City’s former Dutch openness inspired a growing sense that individual and corporate ties of trade and commerce, at leasat for some, might override national alliance. Delancey, Chambers, Duane, and White streets in New York were all named for historical figures chronicled in Trading with the Enemy and whose names figure prominently in the conflict over what could be considered a kind of free trade movement. “French agents moved with ease in the shadows of wartime New York [City],” Truxes notes, “Agents and spies entered and departed unseen aboard vessels shuttling between New York City and French settlements in Maritime Canada, the western Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico.” Some of New York City’s most prominent trader-businessmen did the same. Well worth the read.

Truxes is a Senior Lecturer in the History Department at Trinity College. His current project (now in the works) 1756: The Year the World Ended will also have a lot to say about New York (city and province) during the French and Indian War.

The author sent me the following synopsis, which I’ll include here:

Prologue: “The Informer”
The book opens in the autumn of 1759 with a dramatic account of the public humiliation of a government informer. George Spencer, a failed New York wine merchant, has responded to a notice from the custom house offering an award for information related to the shipping of provisions, supplies, and “warlike stores” to the French enemy. Spencer stands to recover his fortune by bringing ruin to New Yorkers doing business with the French. When word spreads that an informer is loose in the city, a dozen members of the city’s merchant elite—main characters in the story—meet in secret to plan the punishment of George Spencer. The following day (November 2, 1759), an angry mob “carts” the informer through the city, pelting him with stones, dirt, and “the filth of the streets”. He is then taken to the New York City Jail where he spends 27 months unraveling a web of false charges and planning his revenge.

1: “A City at War”
New York during the Seven Years’ War (1755-1763) was an attractive, thriving, and self-confident city. It was the headquarters of the British Army in North America and a principal link in the chain of military supply—for both sides. Its large and aggressive fleet of privateers, the most successful in British America, was emblematic of the swagger that pervaded the city. Most importantly, New York was a commercial center, driven by a business ethos that placed commercial success above all else.

2: “Admiral Hardy and the Smugglers”
Early in the war, New York’s provincial governor, Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, fears—quite rightly—that large-scale smuggling operations in New York City have the potential to undermine the British war effort. In the spring of 1756, Hardy stages an aggressive campaign to eradicate all forms of illicit trade. Since its founding in the seventeenth century, colonial New York City has benefited from a delicate balance between legal and extra-legal trade, and there is a long tradition of cooperation between political and commercial elites. When Hardy upsets that balance in the interest of the war effort, he unwittingly drives New Yorkers into large-scale trade with the French enemy.

3: “Frenchified Bottoms”
At midnight at an East River wharf in May 1756, Samuel Stilwell, one of the conspirators in the punishment of George Spencer, loads a cargo of provisions for the neutral Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The goods will be turned over to enemy agents for transshipment to French Saint-Domingue. Stilwell’s vessel departs New York just as Great Britain declares war against France. In the weeks that followed, British warships and privateers sweep the French carrying trade from the sea, creating a crisis for military planners in Versailles. In desperation, they turn to neutral “Frenchified bottoms”, as well as North America vessels bound for neutral Dutch and Danish islands in the Caribbean. High-handed British countermeasures take a severe toll on neutral shipping and create a diplomatic crisis.

4: “Mountmen”
London is more cautious in its dealings with neutral Spain, fearing Spanish entrance into the war on the side of the French. Britain’s toleration of Spanish neutrality contributes to the rise to prominence of an obscure Spanish port on the north coast of Hispaniola just a few miles east of the border with French Saint-Domingue. By 1757, Monte Cristi is one of the busiest shipping points in the North Atlantic, with as many as 180 vessels riding in the bay at one time. Each day, a fleet of Spanish coasting vessels carries high-priced North American provisions and other goods (many manufactured in Britain) to the French at Cape Francois and elsewhere in Saint-Domingue. There they are exchanged for sugar, coffee, indigo, and other island produce at bargain prices. From the British perspective, the trade is legal so long as there is no direct contact with the subjects of the French king. New York ships and resident merchants are a conspicuous presence at Monte Cristi, as are the sulking British warships patrolling off the coast.

5: “Flag-Trucers”
The chapter opens with a New York trading vessel flying a white flag of truce slipping silently beneath the guns at the entrance to the harbor at Cape Francois. British harassment of ships doing business with the French through neutral sites—and the high costs that accompany indirect trade—give rise to a more creative ruse: trading with the enemy under the protection of government-issued permits to exchange prisoners-of-war. When the commander of the British naval squadron at Port Royal, Jamaica, discovers that “flag-trucers” from North America are outfitting French warships in the summer of 1759, he take
s the law into his own hands, rounding up flag-of-truce vessels and initiating prosecutions in the Jamaican court of vice-admiralty. The British admiral’s actions cause consternation in New York where the faint-of-heart begin to exit wartime trade with the French.

6: “Mixed Messages”
From his cold and dank room in the New York City Jail, George Spencer plots his revenge and launches a barrage of lawsuits in the early weeks of 1760. Some are to gain his “informer’s share” of ships and cargoes trading with the enemy- others are to recover personal damages from his tormentors. The Navy’s interdictions in the West Indies and Spencer’s initiatives at home spark a lively but inconclusive debate on trading with the enemy. In late July, the sudden death of Lieutenant-Governor James Delancey (Hardy’s replacement and a friend of the traders) further demoralizes the city and brings Cadwallader Colden (a less skilled and more confrontational politician) to power. In London, the de facto prime minister, William Pitt, responds to a chorus of complaints from the British military with a circular letter to all colonial governors demanding that they look into allegations of widespread trading with the enemy. In November 1760, after Spencer’s prosecutions are thrown out of the New York Court of Vice–Admiralty by a corrupt judge, the informer throws himself at the mercy of the British commander in North America, General Jeffery Amherst. Pressured to act, Colden calls for formal hearings. After two weeks of testimony, the provincial council in New York finds no basis for Spencer’s charges. In late December—the day Colden completes his report to Pitt—news arrives of the death of King George II.

7: “Business as Usual”
In January 1761—in the midst of a blizzard—King George III is proclaimed in New York. The guest list at the governor’s reception includes the city’s leading traders with the enemy, several of them kinsmen of prominent politicians and judges. Meanwhile, in the West Indies, the Royal Navy is stepping up its campaign to eradicate the practice and becomes increasingly aggressive in its disruption of trade with the French via Spanish Monte Cristi. News arrives in New York that an appeals court in London has begun to reverse lower-court condemnations of ships trading with the enemy where there was no evidence of face-to-face contact between British traders and subjects of the French king. George Spencer is released from the New York City Jail in January 1762 following the appointment of a new chief justice without ties to the New York mercantile community. By June, Spencer is in London.

8: “Crackdown”
New York City has become a nest of French agents coordinating the movement of provisions and supplies to the French West Indies and Gulf of Mexico. At the time of Spencer’s release from jail, a British warship departs a naval base on the south coast of England for New York City. It carries news of Britain’s declaration of war against Spain, as well as urgent orders for General Amherst to prepare an expeditionary force to join an assault on Havana, Cuba. In April, Amherst is unable to meet London’s deadline because of the scarcity of provisions and supplies created by the city’s trade with the French. When naval patrol boats seize New York ships returning from Cape Francois, captured documents reveal the full extent of the city’s involvement in the trade. Raids lead to the seizure of French agents, following which prominent New York merchants are arrested and jailed. At a public meeting on May 29, 1762, fifty-four New York merchants sign an appeal to Lieutenant-Governor Colden begging forgiveness for what they had done and the harm it may have brought to the war effort.

9: “The Trial”
Cadwallader Colden and New York’s attorney general, John Tabor Kempe, prepare for the prosecution of leading figures in New York’s trade with the French. The first of these, the Cunningham-White trial, opens in April 1763. Waddell Cunningham and Thomas White (among the principal characters in the book) are among the leading participants in the trade. Readers will be taken through the twists and turns of the trial and follow Kempe’s presentation to the jury. The defense, caught off-guard by the rigor of the Crown’s case, argues that Cunningham and White are being prosecuted for behavior that was commonplace during the war. To the consternation of the city’s merchant community, the jury finds the defendants guilty and the court imposes a stiff fine. The defense petitions the court for permission to argue later for an “arrest of judgment” based on the severity of the penalty.

10: “Fruits of Victory”
New York slips into a severe postwar recession. George Spencer—now in London—haunts the corridors of power, demanding justice for himself and punishment for those aiding and comforting the enemy. We learn about the politics of the government’s lackluster response to colonial smuggling and trading with the enemy. In America, the war ends in the summer of 1763, and Waddell Cunningham—the principal defendant in the Cunningham-White trail—becomes involved in a violent altercation on the streets of New York with a fellow merchant, Thomas Forsey. The British government, facing staggering wartime debt, deputizes naval officers as customs officials and sends warships to America to enforced laws governing trade. New Yorkers feel the heavy hand of commercial reform as the remaining trading-with-the-enemy cases go to trial. The mood turns ugly, and juries now refuse to convict. At a hearing in January 1764, a judge sharply reduces the fines against Cunningham and White.

Epilogue: “Path to Revolution”
In London, George Spencer—now busier than ever—is in contact with British Treasury officials as prime minister George Grenville puts the finishing touches on tough new legislation to reform the customs administration in America and raise revenue to pay for the long and expensive war. In New York, at the Cunningham-Forsey civil trial in October 1764 (a much anticipated event), the jury rules in favor of Forsey and imposes a huge fine on Cunningham. When the court refuses to hear an appeal based on the size of the penalty, friends of the defendant persuade Lieutenant-Governor Colden to allow an appeal based on his powers as chief executive of the province. Colden defers the matters to London and earns the wrath of the citizenry for interfering the sanctity of jury verdicts. In the spring of 1765, the Stamp Act is passed in London and New Yorkers edge toward open resistance against what they see as tyrannical and arbitrary rule. On the day the Stamp Act goes into effect (November 1, 1765), violence erupts in New York, and the city teeters on the edge of anarchy. Within a fortnight, Colden is replaced by a new governor who defuses the tension. In January 1766, George Spencer offers the British Treasury a solution to the thorny problem of raising revenue in America—a tax on tea.

Postscript.
The book ends with brief accounts of what happens to the principal characters later in their lives. Many go on to play prominent roles as Patriots and Loyalists during the American Revolution. A few of those who had earned their fortunes trading with the enemy during the last of the eighteenth-century Anglo-French colonial wars become Founding Fathers of the United States of America.

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