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The American Revolution
British Reforms and Colonial Resistance
George Washington to Robert Cary & Company

The Stamp Act and other attempts to tighten British imperial controls must be seen in the light of an economic depression that occurred in the colonies after the French and Indian War. To be sure, different colonists were affected by the depression in differing ways. Keep in mind that the colonies comprised thirteen distinct cultures, each with its own social values, economic concerns, and political institutions. As a Virginian, George Washington's outlook reflected what historian T.H. Breen has termed a "tobacco culture" mentality. Increasingly, he viewed the mercantile relationship between Virginia's great planters and Britain as fundamentally exploitive and the planters' dependence on British credit as "enslaving." In the following letter from Washington to Robert Cary (a British merchant to whom Washington owed money), how does Washington describe his economic difficulties? Does Washington believe that he is receiving fair treatment from Cary? What effect might these difficulties have had on Washington's perceptions of the Stamp Act?

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That the Sales are pitifully low, needs no words to demonstrate; and that they are worse than many of my Acquaintance upon this River, Potomack, have got in the Out Posts, and from Mr. Russell and other Merchants of London for common Aronoke Tobo., is a truth equally as certain. Nay not so good as I myself have got from Mr. Gildart of Liverpool for light Rent Tobaccos (Shipd him at the same time I did to you) of the meanest sort; such as you once complaind of as the worst of Maryland and not Saleable. Can it be otherwise than a little mortifying then to find, that we, who raise none but Sweetscented Tobacco, and endeavour I may venture to add, to be careful in the management of it, however we fail in the execution, and who by a close and fixed corrispondance with you, contribute so largely to the dispatch of your Ships in this Country shoud meet with such unprofitable returns? Surely I may answer No! Notwithstanding, you will again receive my own Crops this year, and 67 Hhds of Master Custis's but Gentlemen you must excuse me for adding (As I cannot readily conceive that our Tobacco's are so much depreciated in quality as not only to sell much below other Marks of good repute, but actually for less, as I before observed, than the commonest kinds do) that justice to myself and ward will render it absolutely necessary for me to change my corrispondance unless I experience an alteration for the better. . . .

Tobacco I well perceive for a year or two past, had fallen in its value, from what causes I shall not take upon me to determine and I am not so extravagent as to believe that my own and Master Custis's Crops shoud fetch their usual prices when other good Tobacco met with abatements; but I am really selfish enough to expect that we ought to come in for a part of the good prices that are going, from a belief that our Tobacco is of a quality not so much inferior to some that still sells well, and that so considerable a Consignment, when confined in a manner to one House, as ours is, woud lay claim to the best endeavours of the Merchant in the Sales, and in the return of Goods; for many Articles of which I pay exceeding heavily; another thing I cannot easily Account for, unless it is on a Presumption that they are bought at very long credits which by no means ought to be the case; for where a Person has money in a Merchants hands he shoud doubtless have all the benefits that can result from that money, and in like manner where he pays Interest for the use of the Merchants shoud he be entitled to the same advantages, otherwise it might well be asked for what purpose is it that Interest is paid? Once upon my urging a complaint of this nature you wrote me, that the Goods ought to be sent back, and they shoud be returned upon the Shopkeepers hands in cases of Imposition; but a moments reflection points out the Inconveniences of such a measure unless (the Imposition be grossly abusive, or that) we coud afford to have a years stock before hand; how otherwise can a Person who Imports bear requisites only submit to lay a year out of any particular Article of Cloathing, or necessary for Family use, and have recourse to such a tedious and uncertain way of relief as this, when possibly a Tradesman woud deny the Goods and consequently refuse them. It is not to be done, we are obliged to acquiesce to the present loss and hope for future redress. . . .

It appears pretty evident to me from the prices I have generally got for my Tobacco in London, and from some other concomitant Circumstances, that it only suits the Interest of a few particular Gentlemen to continue their consignments of this commodity to that place, while others shoud endeavour to substitute some other Article in place of Tobacco, and try their success there with: In order thereto you woud do me a singular favour in advising of the general price one might expect for good Hemp in your Port watered and prepared according to Act of Parliament, with an estimate of the freight, and all other Incident charges pr. Tonn that I may form some Idea of the profits resulting from the growth. I shoud be very glad to know at the sametime how rough and undressd Flax has generally, and may probably sell; for this year I have made an Essay in both, and altho I suffer pretty considerably by the attempt, owing principally to the severity of the Drougth, and my inexperience in the management I am not altogether discouraged from a further prosecution of the Scheme provided I find the Sales with you are not clogd with too much difficulty and expence.

The Stamp Act may be left to yourselves, who have such large demands upon the Colonies, to determine, who is to suffer most in this event, the Merchant, or the Planter. top of page


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