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Hancock was then just as loyal a British subject as his more Tory-minded commercial colleagues, and as well aware as they of having benefited from the status quo. But along with a few other fairly wealthy merchants in port cities up and down the American Atlantic coast, he did become involved in active resistance to the Stamp Act, uniting with considerably poorer neighbors against the status quo to a degree that only a few years earlier even the most fervent of rabble-rousers had not imagined would be possible.


Underlying the status quo in the 1760s in America was the hundred-plus-year-old system of commerce created by and still regulated by the British Navigation Acts. The original 1651 act had been fashioned to prevent France, Spain, and the Netherlands from poaching on Great Britain's colonial markets and from destroying the fledgling colonial economies. Judging that initial intent admirable, the colonists did not protest when additional acts were promulgated. These included a decree that goods entering or exiting a British colony could only be carried in British or British colonial ships, and others that specified which goods the colonists could and could not export, what they could and could not manufacture, and that they must pay for British imports only in specie or in bills of exchange.

What props you up is often what holds you down. The Navigation Act regulations did foster the growth of America's economy, but only in narrow configurations. American trees suitable for ship masts, potentially worth a great deal to a Europe almost denuded of such trees, could be sold only for British use and at a low price; American indigo, rice, and livestock could not be sent to Great Britain, which had plenty from its own farms, but could profitably be sent to British Caribbean colonies, which because of the same regulations were not producing enough food of their own; and American wheat and tobacco, although craved by Europe, had to first be taken to Great Britain for reexport. (A later tweak to this law allowed direct shipping of such crops from America to Europe if carried in a British vessel.)

Among the Navigation Acts system's most detrimental effects was embedding slavery into the American economy. In the 1760s two-thirds of American exports consisted of tobacco, rice, and indigo—crops that were profitable only with slave labor. One of every six Americans was a slave. Virginia's ratio of slaves to free people was 1 to 1, and South Carolina's was 2 to 1. Beyond slavery's exploitation and degradation, it exacted less obvious costs. As Virginia planter and slave owner George Mason was contending, just then, America's over-dependence on slave labor was diminishing the number of skilled whites coming to America, resulting in lands west of the Alleghenies remaining unproductive.


Peyton Randolph was the king's attorney general for Virginia, and led the Virginia House of Burgesses when its speaker was absent. He was the scion of a family that had been at the forefront of Virginia affairs for generations, and that included Thomas Jefferson, a recent graduate of William & Mary, and the equally young John Marshall, another lawyer. Randolph had been in the House of Burgesses since 1748, and in 1765, while he did not like the Stamp Act, he was not inclined to take too radical a stance against it. At the request of like-minded colleagues he introduced a rather mild set of objections to it for the burgesses to send to London. But to Randolph's surprise and dismay, the young lawyer Patrick Henry outmaneuvered him. Henry introduced a far more fiery set of resolutions and, taking advantage of a mostly empty chamber, managed to get them passed. Randolph, temporarily in the chair, fumed, but then began to see the necessity of a more potent protest against British overreaching. Shortly Randolph resigned as the king's attorney, was elected speaker of the House of Burgesses, and became increasingly radicalized.

Farther south, in Charleston, South Carolina, another longtime loyal British subject and beneficiary of the Navigation Acts system, merchant and plantation owner Henry Laurens, mused on his situation: "I go to church and come home again, to the House of Assembly and return to my habitation, avoiding disputes about tenets, refined politics, and party. At home I am always cheerful and never sad." Although he shared with Hancock, Washington, and Randolph a love
of luxury, wine, and the esteem of fellow citizens rich and poor, he saw no need to seek political power or be more involved in governance than was needed to maintain his social station. Charleston's aggregate wealth was then greater than that of any other American city. "In grandeur, splendor of buildings, decorations, equipages, numbers, shippings, and indeed in almost everything, [Charleston] far surpasses all I ever saw or expected to see," Bostonian Josiah Quincy, Jr., John Adams's law partner, would shortly write home.
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