Barlow Trecothick was born in Stepney, England in 1720. At seven, his family moved to Boston where he became an apprentice for six years to Charles Apthorp, a local merchant. He lived in Boston until he was 22, then he moved to Jamaica where he represented Apthorp’s firm for five years. While in the West Indies, he purchased property on the island of Barbados, “built up extensive Antiguan interests and … became one of the largest landowners on the island of Grenada.” 1 In 1747, he returned to Boston and married Apthorp’s daughter, Grizzell. Three years later, Trecothick and Grizzell moved to England where he became the purchaser of goods for Apthorp and worked closely with Apthorp’s partner and colonial agent, John Tomlinson. By 1758 he had become a co-partner with Apthorp and Tomlinson 2 and their trading company was serving the Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire colonies.
On March 20, 1761, he was “admitted to the Livery of the worshipful company of Clothiers or Drapers.” 3 On January 2, 1764 as a member of the Clothworkers Company, he ran for public office and was elected an alderman of Vintry Ward for the City of London. 4 An alderman was the representative of the “free inhabitants,” that is, those who were a member of a guild. On March 9, 1764, Prime Minister George Grenville introduced the notion of a stamp tax in a speech to Parliament: “toward further defraying the … expenses [of stationing soldiers in North America after the Seven Years War], it may be proper to charge certain stamp duties in the … colonies and plantations.” 5 It was almost a year before the bill was given its first reading on February 13, 1765. In February of 1765 a group of concerned merchants met and formed the Merchants of London Trading to North America Committee. The official purpose of the committee was to determine “the amount of the debts due from the colonies, in order to found an argument of their inability to pay any new tax.” 6 Barlow Trecothick was elected Deputy Chairman and served as the principle spokesman for the committee. 7
The Stamp Act was passed in the House of Commons on February 27 and in the House of Lords on March 8. In response, the colonial legislatures encouraged resistance through the use of non-importation agreements. The Non-Importation Agreement of the colony of New York read as follows:
First. That in all orders they send out to Great Britain for goods or merchandise of any nature, kind, or quality whatsoever, usually imported from Great Britain, they will direct their correspondents not to ship them unless the Stamp Act be repealed. It is nevertheless agreed that all such merchants as are owners of and have vessels already gone, and now cleared out for Great Britain, shall be at liberty to bring back in them, on their own accounts, crates and casks of earthen ware, grindstones, pipes, and such other bulky articles as owners usually fill up their vessels with.
Secondly. It is further unanimously agreed that all orders already sent home, shall be countermanded by the very first conveyance; and the goods and merchandise thereby ordered, not to be sent unless upon the condition mentioned in the foregoing resolution.
Thirdly. It is further unanimously agreed that no merchant will vend any goods or merchandise sent upon commission from Great Britain that shall be shipped from thence after the first day of January next unless upon the condition mentioned in the first resolution. 8
They believed that by refusing to buy British goods, over time the British merchants, suffering from a loss of trade, would exert pressure on Parliament to repeal the Act. Little did Barlow Trecothick realize that for the next twelve months he was to become the leader of mercantile opposition to the Stamp Act and an advisor to Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Marquis of Rockingham and the new Prime Minister who replaced George Grenville.
On November 7, Trecothick wrote a letter to Rockingham. In it he warned that enforcement of the Act would have
consequences of which must be very dreadful – they are too many and too terrible for me to describe – I therefore only beg leave to lay one of them immediately affecting these Kingdoms’ before your Lordship …
He explained that no ships could clear any colonial harbor without stamped paper, and with almost all of the Stamp Collectors having resigned their positions, the custom officers could not comply with the Act. “It therefore follows that no Man in his Senses will trust to clearance so imperfect …”
Many of the British Merchants trading to North America who will be disabled from paying their Engagements here – even those of them who can stand the present Shock, will be under the Necessity of declining further Exports; so that a total stop must be put to all Purchases of Manufactures for a Country whence no Returns can be expected. From this State it naturally and unavoidably follows, that an exceedingly great Number of Manufacturers are soon to be without Employ and of course without Bread.
He ended the letter by stating
that too great Delay and Caution in administering the Remedy, may render the Diseases of this embarrassed Nation incurable; and even a virtuous Administration may therefore be deemed accountable for Effects proceeding from the Errors of their Predecessors. 9
Rockingham knew that Trecothick’s warning needed to be taken seriously. On November 12 at Rockingham’s request, the two met for dinner. This event marked the beginning of an alliance between the Ministry and the London merchants and, more specifically, between Prime Minister Rockingham and Barlow Trecothick. 10 There is no record of the discussion that took place during the dinner, but based upon Rockingham’s actions over the following weeks, it appears that the repeal of the Stamp Act had been a major topic.
The two men planned to meet again on December 2, however it is likely that they met sometime before that date. This is based upon three things: Rockingham had been receiving letters from the merchants of several British cities expressing alarm over the decline in trade; Trecothick and Franklin had delivered the American Stamp Collectors’ resignation letters; and on November 25, Trecothick sent a summary of the concerns of the proprietors of Grenada to the Lord Commissioner for Trade and Plantations and to Lord Rockingham. Like the dinner meeting of November 12, there is no record of when Rockingham and Trecothick finalized their strategy, but again what unfolded over the next two months appears to have been decided sometime in late November. The strategy did not focus on the constitutionality of Parliament’s authority, but rather on economic expediency.
At the meeting on December 2, the two men discussed the Grenada summary and planned the agenda for a meeting 48 hours later. After the meeting, a notice was placed in the London newspapers:
The merchants trading to North America, are desired to meet at the Kings
Arms Tavern, in Cornhill, on Wednesday next, the 4th of December, at twelve o’clock precisely, on affairs of great Importance. 11
The turnout for the meeting, according to the London Evening Post, was impressive: “On Wednesday, at the Kings Arms Tavern in Cornhill, there was a very numerous meeting of the merchants of this city trading to North America.” 12 In attendance were merchants, traders and manufacturers. Barlow Trecothick was unanimously elected the meeting’s chairman 13 and a committee of 28 men “was appointed consisting of principal merchants trading to each colony.” The purpose of the meetings was
to solicit some effectual remedy in the present distressed state of the trade to the colonies so essentially necessary for the support of the manufactures of this kingdom. 14
After sharing their mutual concerns, it was decided that by way of a petition, they would “apply to the Outports and to the Manufacturying Citys and towns for their concurrence and assistance … [and request their] sentiments on the subject – through the course of which we mean to take for our guide.” 15 Because there was a disagreement in the Cabinet as to how to deal with the crisis, Rockingham could not agree to one specific measure for its resolution, consequently, the petition was written in the most general of terms. However, on the back of the petition was written, “This letter concerted between the Marquis of Rockingham to Mr. Trecothick the principal instrument in the happy repeal of the Stamp Act without giving up the British authority quieted the Empire.” 16 It was also decided to send a committee of merchants to call on the Secretary of State for the Southern Department and then to call on the Ministry; the purpose was to seek “their … support in their intended application to Parliament.” 17 Before ending the meeting, they decided to meet two days later to review the final draft of the petition to the Outports, to review the minutes of the meeting on the 4th that would be sent to Rockingham, and to welcome the West Indies merchants to join their efforts.
West Indies Meeting. The proprietors of estates in the West Indies and the Merchants trading therewith, are desired to meet on special affairs, at the Kings Arms Tavern in Cornhill, tomorrow the 6th inst., at twelve o’clock precisely. 18
At the meeting on the 6th, the minutes and petition were approved, thirty petitions were sent out to the cities and towns and a letter similar in content to the petition was sent to the Lord Mayors throughout Britain.
Thursday, December 12, a Number of Merchants waited on the Secretaries of State in order to lay before them a vast Number of Letters received by them, forbidding the sending any more Goods to America. 19
The Secretary of State for the Southern Department was Gen. Henry Seymour
Conway and the Secretary of State for the Northern Department was the Duke of Grafton. The following day, the committee
waited on the Ministry, to request their countenance and support, in the remedy of the distresses under which that Branch of British commerce now labours. 20
For the next three weeks, Rockingham and Trecothick waited on the replies to the petitions and letters. On December 20, Parliament adjourned until January 14. It was likely that during this time the two men spoke frequently, but there are no records to substantiate this claim. It is fair to conclude that the Rockingham Ministry used this time to prepare a repeal that would be acceptable to both the British merchants and Parliament.
The next meeting between Rockingham and Trecothick occurred on December 31. A brief description of its purpose was described in a letter from Rockingham to Lord Newcastle. In the opinion of the Ministry, the colonies should be given “every possible relief in trade and commerce” but this should go “hand in hand with Proclorations of authority or censures of the right of tumult.” 21 “Proclorations of Authority” referred to a declaratory act in general terms.
With Parliament reconvening on January 14, the soonest a repeal could be announced was March. There was no time to waste. Witnesses were going to be called to give testimony before a Parliamentary committee in February. They had to be carefully chosen and the order of them being called determined. Also, a strategy for presenting the twenty-six petition replies and the letters from the town mayors had to be determined. A petition reply from Birmingham, dated December 21, 1765,read as follows:
Samuel Garbett, Joseph Wilkinson, and eighteen others, to Barlow Trecotluck. Embarrassment of merchants here in consequence of [the lack] of remittances from, and stoppage of trade with America. Thousands of labourers will soon be clamorous for employment and subsistence. Will soon present some facts to help to remove the blow given to this trade. 22
In January, Trecothick wrote a lengthy petition citing examples of economic distress both at home and abroad, ie. exports to the colonies declined, Custom House Bonds multiplied, navigation in and out of harbors was obstructed, trade payments were in default, courts of jurisdiction to recover debts were closed, credit was shortened to no more than one year, and the rise in the cost of labor caused a decline in manufacturing which in turn caused a rise in unemployment. One copy was presented to the House of Commons and a second to House of Lords.
On February 11, the House Commons went into a committee of the whole on American affairs to hear testimony concerning the repeal of the Stamp Act. Forty-one merchants, agents, and former agents were heard. Barlow Trecothick was one of the first called on the 11th. After giving a brief statement regarding his background, the questioning began. The areas touched upon were the value of the export trade with America, the commodities traded, the means and methods of payment, the failure of remittances, and the total outstanding obligations. When asked “If the Stamp Act is enforced – will you Comply with the orders?” He replied, “Certainly not.” When asked, “Why?” He responded, “Because I should consider it as putting my property into a Country embroiled in Confusion as to make it Uncertain.”
The following are examples of other questions he was asked, and his responses:
Suppose the Stamp Acts shd be so Modified as to permit the Colonies to pay in Goods instead of Specie wod it not be more Reasonable?
Certainly as far as that goes …
Is it your opinion the people wod be satisfied with the repeal of one Act?
I think they wod from a Conviction of its being for the good of the Mother Country.
May it not be Modified as the Americans will submit to it?
I believe no Modification will satisfy them.
Because the people from one End of the Contt to the other have set their faces ag[ains]t it.
On what principle?
They think it oppressive in its Nature and an Infringement on their Right
If the oppression was removed wod they submit?
The[y] Consider the whole as oppressive Both Quantity & Quality.
If the Stamp Act is Modified will you Comply with the Concils Order?
If the Spring Orders are not Executed will you give Orders to the Manufacturing Towns?
Are not the loyal Subjects discontented with the Act?
There is great proportion of loyal Subjects as loyal as those here but at present are discontented. If the Stamp Act was repealed this House wod soon have specimens of that Gratitude …
What Effect on the Stocks will the Independency of North America have?
A very Fatal one …
What is the Debt due from North America?
At the lowest computation 2,900,000 pounds sterling I am authorized to say due to the City of London, Bristol 800,000 … Glasgow 500,000 … Liverpool 150,000 … and Manchester 100,000.
The final question put to him was, “Which will establish the Independency soonest – the enforcing the Stamp Act or repealing it?” His response was immediate, “The enforcing it.” 23
His examination lasted four hours. It was followed by two days of testimonies, then on the third and final day Benjamin Franklin was brought in. His testimony would later be referred to as “Franklin in the Cockpit.” By all accounts, his performance was impressive and well orchestrated. According to Thomas Fleming, “Franklin made sure that his testimony would have a real impact. With the help of several friends in Parliament, he drew up and carefully rehearsed a list of questions and answers that he hoped would refute the Stamp Act once and for all.” 24 His testimony also lasted four hours. The bookend testimonies of Trecothick and Franklin were a tour de force. Trecothick explained the economic effect the Act had on British manufacturers and merchants while Franklin explained the political perspective of the colonists.
Afterward, James West reported to the Duke of Newcastle that Barlow Trecothick gave a “full, clear and satisfactory account of the distress at home and abroad.” 25 Dr. John Fothergill wrote, “Barlow Trecothick, Esq., Alderman of London [and] Chairman to the Committee of Merchants … came off with reputation.” 26 Even Franklin wrote, “Great honour and thanks are due to the British Merchants … our zealous and indefatigable Friends particularly Mr. Trecothick …” 27
There was pressure on Parliament from all sides; the British merchants, the colonial agents, the town mayors, the manufacturers, the Stamp Collectors in the colonies, the West Indies proprietors, and the Rockingham Ministry. On February 21, 1766, a resolution to repeal the Stamp Act was moved in the House of Commons; the next day it was carried by a vote of 275 to 167. Forty-six of the fifty-two merchants who sat in Parliament voted in favor of the repeal. The repeal passed the House of Lords on March 17 and received Royal assent the next day. The Stamp Act was repealed four days shy of its first anniversary.
Ships rushed to bring the good news to the colonies. Colonial merchants and legislatures thanked their colonial agents, Trecothick and the Merchants of London Trading to North America Committee. In a letter dated May 6, 1766, from the New York merchants to Trecothick, they extended their “hearty thanks to all our Friends in Great Britain whether in or out of Parliament.” 28 The New Hampshire Legislature similarly wrote, “Accept our grateful thanks for your spirited and kind assistance in the affair of the repeal.” 29 At a dinner in New York a toast was offered for Trecothick 30 and the colony of Hew Hampshire went so far as to honor him by naming a township after him. 31 In the Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1766, the article that announced Trecothick’s election as sheriff described him as the “gentlemen [who] was president of the committee of merchants appointed to manage American Affairs, and acquitted himself to the general satisfaction of all concerned.” 32
If one reads the twenty-three testimonies that were given before the House committee and saved in the Duke of Newcastle’s papers, it seems apparent that the nature of the questions showed more concern for economic issues than for the possibility of American independence or Parliament’s prerogatives. American history has credited Benjamin Franklin almost single-handedly with securing the repeal of the Stamp Act, however English history leans more toward crediting the British merchants. Based upon the atmosphere in Parliament at the time, consideration of colonial rights was not high on their list; if it were, the Declaratory Act may have taken on a different form. The repeal of the Stamp Act was a financially expedient measure and for that, credit deserves to go to Barlow
Trecothick more than anyone else.
1 V. L. Oliver, History of the Island of Antigua (London: 1894), 1:39.
2 Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The History of Parliament, the House of Commons
1754–1790 (London: Published for the History of Parliament Trust by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1964), 3:557-60.
3 British Chronicle, March 20-23, 1761.
4 Alfred B. Beavan, The Aldermen of the City of London (London: Eden Disher and Co., Ltd., 1913), 1:142.
5 Annual Register 1764, (London, J. Dodsley, 1767), 30.
6 Anonymous, The Claim of the Colonies to an Exemption from Internal taxes imposed by Authority of Parliament Examined (London: W. Johnston, 1765), 23.
7 D. H. Watson, Barlow Trecothick and other Associates of Lord Rockingham during the Stamp Act Crisis, 1765-1766 (Sheffield, England: Unpublished Masters thesis, Sheffield University Library, 1956), 25.
8 New York Mercury, 7 November 1765.
9 George Thomas, 6th Earl of Albemarle, Rockingham Papers, Wentworth-Woodhouse Muniments, Personal and Political Papers (Sheffield, England: City Archives, 1852), R24-43a.
11 The Public Ledger, December 2-4, 1765.
12 The London Evening Post, December 5-7, 1765.
13 The London Chronicle, December 5-7, 1765.
15 P.D.G. Thomas, British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: the First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763-1767 (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1975), 146-7.
16 Rockingham Papers, Wentworth-Woodhouse Muniments, R53-7.
17 The St. James Chronicle or British Evening Post, December 5-7, 1765.
18 The New Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, December 4-6, 1765.
19 The Public Advertiser, December 14, 1765; Rockingham Papers, Wentworth-Woodhouse Muniments, R57-5 and R57-8.
20 The London Evening Post, December 14, 1765.
21 Rockingham to Newcastle, January, 2, 1766, in the British Museum Manuscripts #32973, f12-14.
22 Historical Manuscript Commission, 14th Report, Appendix, Part X, The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, Vol. II, American Papers (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1895), 29.
23 Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle Papers (London: British Museum Library, Additional MSS), #33030.
24 Thomas Fleming, Benjamin Franklin: Inventing America (New York: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2007), 80.
25 James West to Newcastle, February 11, 1766, Additional Manuscripts #32973, British Museum.
26 Dr. John Fothergill to James Pemberton, February 25, 1766, in Chain of
Friendship Letters of John Fothergill, eds., Betsy C. Corner and Christopher C. Booth
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 253.
27 Benjamin Franklin to David Hall, February 24, 1766, in The Papers of Benjamin
Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven: American Philosophical Society and Yale University press, 1970), 170.
28 George Thomas, 6th Earl of Albemarle, Rockingham Papers, Wentworth-Woodhouse Muniments, R55.
29 Theordore Atkinson to Barlow Trecothick and John Wentworth, July 12, 1766,
in Province of New Hampshire, Journal of the House (Concord, NH: Division of Records, Management and Archives), 106.
30 Theodroe D. Jervey, “Barlow Trecothick,” in The South Carolina Historical and
Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 32, (July, 1931), 159.
31 Ibid., 162.
32 Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. XXXVI (1766), 196.