The Board of Trade and Plantations, 1688–1761


November 16, 2020
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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There were four bodies that directly influenced England’s relationship with her American colonies; they were the King (a body of one), the Privy Council (advisers to the king), Parliament, and the least known, the Board of Trade and Plantations. This article is about the role and responsibilities of the Board leading up to the accession of George III.

The Board of Trade and Plantations was created as a committee of the Privy Council following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and King William’s War in North America with the French. King William needed a central body that would improve England’s domestic industry and would foster production in and supervise the government of the colonies. In May of 1696, William set up such a body.[1] The Board consisted of seven ex officio officers from the Privy Council[2] and eight members who who did not hold a high position in the government. The officers were not expected to attend any of the meetings, but the eight members who made up the active part of the Board were expected to attend as many meetings as possible. Seven of the eight members were given the title of Lords Commissioner; the eighth member, the leader or president, was given the title of First Lords Commissioner. The duties of the commissioners were threefold: to study the condition of England’s trade, that is, determine what should be improved, what should be continued and what should be discontinued; to consider a better method for “setting on work and employing the poor of our said kingdom, and making them useful to the public, and thereby easing our subjects of that burden”;[3] and to study the plantations’ administrations of government, plan for new settlements, and review all colonial legislation. The Board had no authority to take any action—it could only report information and recommend action to the king and Privy Council. Unfortunately, the second duty, “relief of the poor,” would never be given any attention by the Board over its eighty years of existence.

The Board’s first meeting was held on June 25, 1696. The most important member of the Board’s staff was the Secretary. It was his

duty to arrange the business for this board, and to bring the several matters before them for their consideration in such method, time, and place as he shall judge to be for their convenience and dispatch of business, or as their lordships shall think proper to direct.[4]

He was also entrusted with opening all in-coming communication, drafting all outgoing communication, maintaining the Board’s journal and filing a copy of every communication in the permanent file. In 1696, four clerks were employed by the Board; in 1700, five clerks; in 1701, six clerks; and in 1708, the Board settled on seven clerks.[5]

During the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the Board showed some interest in trade, but it was the business related to the colonies that consumed much of its time. Sometimes special arrangements had to be made because of the amount of communications to be read:

Their lordships then reflecting upon the voluminous papers that are from time to time transmitted from the several plantations, which it is impossible should all new read at the board, Resolved, for the better dispatch of business to divide the work and to take each of them a share of it, in order to draw out and offer to the board only such extracts as should be material.[6]

Later, because of some misreadings, the Board was forced to adjust the plan.

Ordered, that no letter or packet directed to the board from any of the foreign plantations be opened but in the presence of three of the commissioners sitting at the board; or, in case said letters and packets be brought to the office when three of the commissioners are not sitting, then to be open by the secretary only, but none to be given out to be read by the particular commissioner till first read by, or presented to, three of the said commissioners sitting at the board.[7]

The second quarter of the eighteenth century marked a dramatic decline in the quality as well the amount of worked conducted by the commissioners. Meetings were poorly attended and the pages in each year’s journal, that is, the compilation of the year’s business, became fewer and fewer.[8] Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, who served from 1721 to 1742, described how he wished the Lords to deal with the colonies in North America:

These colonies must hereafter not exist upon the limited and restricted system of former days. I believe that both the mother country and the colonies will flourish all the more for the abolition of useless restrictions.[9]

Between 1742 and 1762, there would be four more Whig Prime Ministers. Many of the appointments to the Board during this time were to men who were supporters of the respective Prime Minister but possessed little interest or background in colonial affairs. Another reason for the decline in the work of the  Board was the fact that Lord Monson, the First Lords Commissioner from 1737-1748, was unorganized and inefficient. This resulted in many of the powers vested in the Board being taken over by the Duke of Newcastle, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department (1724-1748). Some of the powers were the right to nominate to colonial officers, to send instructions to governors and to direct all colonial business.[10] Due to illness Lord Monson ceased to attend Board meetings beginning in the spring of 1746. Soon the ranking member, Richard Plumer, chose not to attend and the second ranking member, the Honorable R. S. Herbert, chose to attend only twice a year. The remaining five members did their best to bring the business of the Board up to date while they awaited the appointment of the new First Lords Commissioner by the King.

With the Duke of Bedford’s strong recommendation, George Montagu-Dunk, the Earl of Halifax, became the next First Lords Commissioner. In a letter to Halifax dated September 3, 1748, he wrote,

I took the liberty to mention your lordship to Mr. Pelham [the Prime Minister] as one whom I thought, on account of your application to, and abilities in business to be put at the head of a board which has under its care and inspection business of the highest national concern, and which has always had at its head . . . persons of great consideration and worth. There were two other reasons which induced me to take the liberty to mention you as the Properest person I could think of for this appointment. The one was, that I look upon it as a post of business . . . and the other was my desire to have a person of your lordship’s weight and consequence . . . I am now authorized by his Majesty’s command to offer this employment to your lordship.[11]

Halifax accepted the offer and met with the complete Board for the first time on November 11. He brought energy and activity to the work of the Board. Under the first four years of his leadership the Board addressed three major issues: emigration to Nova Scotia, claims related to the defense of the North American colonies, and regulation of Bills of Credit.

Nova Scotia

With the end of the War of the Austrian Succession on October 18, 1748, England needed to strengthen her hold on Nova Scotia. On March 4, 1749, Halifax

Communicated to the board a proposal which he had laid before his Majesty and had been approved by him for there establishment of a civil government in the province of Nova Scotia, and for settling there several thousand protestant subjects within the same.[12]

His plan was to send over three thousand Protestant settlers.[13] Forty-thousand pounds were appropriated for their settlement. The commissioners held meetings almost daily on the enterprise and personally supervised all of the arrangements.[14] Before the end of the year, the settlers were transported to North America and were building their colony.

Claims related to the Defense of the North American Colonies

When the War of the Austrian Succession spilled over to North America it was called King George’s War. Fighting occurred on the frontiers of Massachusetts (including present-day Maine), New York, and New Hampshire (including Vermont). The colonists and merchants sought compensation from the British Treasury for goods and manpower they had supplied to the war effort. The Treasury directed the commissioners to review all claims and determine a final reimbursement.[15] On February 7, 1750, the House of Commons appropriated 122,246 pounds to cover all claims.

Bills of Credit

In January of 1751, some London merchants presented a petition to the Board to restrain the issuance of bills of credit in the colonies. The Board sent the appeal to Parliament who in turn directed it a large committee for their consideration; three members of the Board were on the committee. However, when the petition was sent to a smaller drafting committee, no members of the Board were assigned to the committee. In the end, the bill became the New England Currency Act. It forbid the New England colonies to issue any new notes, forbid the colonists to use the existing bills to pay their private debts (i.e. to British merchants), but allowed the colonial public to use the existing bills to pay their public debts (i.e. taxes).[16]

Most of the Board’s routine work fell into one of three areas: examination of colonial laws,[17] maintenance of colonial correspondence, or preparation of commissions and instructions[18] for the Secretary of State to present to the king.

Lord Halifax. (New York Public Library)

Between 1748 and 1752 each member of the Board was also a member of Parliament, but three commissioners were never assigned to a committee that dealt with any matter related to trade and the American colonies; a fourth commissioner served infrequently on a committee. This left only three commissioners to actively serve on any committee.[19] Unfortunately, the committees they served on were generally large (between fifteen and twenty members) so their influence was minimal. In many situations when a bill was sent to a drafting committee, no commissioner was assigned to the committee. Parliament looked on the Board as a department that collected and collated information—nothing more. A commissioner was never expected to speak at a committee meeting in the capacity of a member of the Board. When Parliament or a committee of Parliament needed a report or document, the House had to write a formal request to the King. The request was sent to the Privy Council who would in turn present it to the King. The King’s decision was then sent to the Secretary of State who in turn conveyed it to the Board. This cumbersome process for securing a report or document may explain why Parliament requested so few of them; a second possible explanation is that the bills in Parliament concerning the American colonies at this time were more connected with the Treasury or Customs Office than the Board of Trade.

Halifax soon became frustrated with the limited authority of the Board. When he and the commissioners were working feverishly on the preparations for the settling of Nova Scotia, he asked the Lords of the Admiralty to issue certain orders regarding transportation of the settlers. The reply he received in effect said that “their lordships would be pleased to attend to his request when they should receive orders from a source which had the right to express the king’s pleasure.”[20] Halifax then sent a memorial to the new Secretary of State for the Southern Department, the Duke of Bedford (who served from 1748 to 1751), asking that two ships of forty or fifty guns serve as an escort. This request was also denied. In 1751, the Duke of Bedford was removed from office. Halifax hoped he would be appointed to the vacant secretaryship, but the new Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, awarded it to the Earl of Holdernesse (1751-1754). Halifax again became frustrated and threatened to resign. Newcastle needed to keep Halifax at the Board. On August 6, 1751, Halifax stated he would stay if the following propositions were accepted: first, the Board should be allowed to recommend to the Privy Council the names of men worthy to be governors; second, he would be admitted to the group of cabinet counsellors;[21] and third, he “should have the same weight in all plantation affairs as if by [his] post [he] had direct access to the king.”[22]  Newcastle asked Halifax to explain more fully what he was requesting. On August 25, Halifax wrote,

Those powers contained in the commission of the Board of Trade . . . in the first and second clauses of the enclosed extract, of representing to the king upon all matters relating to trade and plantations, of recommending what may be proper to be passed in the assemblies, of hearing complaints of oppression and mal-administration and . . . the power to recommending governors etc, mentioned in the third clause of the enclosed extract, and in general all other officers of the crown in America have always been exercised by the secretary of state.[23]

Duke of Newcastle. (New York Public Library)

Newcastle presented Halifax’s conditions to the King who gave his approval to everything but Halifax’s admission to the Cabinet.[24] Halifax informed Newcastle that he needed time to consider the King’s decision. On December 11, Halifax informed Newcastle that he would return to the Board if the Secretary of State for the Southern Department did not assume authority over the American colonies in areas that rightfully rested with the Board.[25] On March 11, 1752, the Privy Council issued an Order in Council[26] granting all that Halifax had requested except the seat in the Cabinet.[27] All communication going forward from a governor or colonial official would now go directly to the Board of Trade where it would be read and then directed to the appropriate government office.

The Order of 1752 changed the purpose of the Board. The full name of the Board was “The Committee of the Privy Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations”; it was to oversee the commercial trade of the empire and the civil operations of the colonies. Now the Board would oversee only the latter. The Order would never have been issued if not for Halifax. It increased his authority, but it also created an institutional structure that served as a bridge between the central authority of the crown, the Privy Council and Parliament and the local authority of the governors, the Councils and the Assemblies.[28]

The Board did not change their commitment to or manner of conducting business following the Order of 1752. The average number of meetings per year was 97; the average number of pages filled with meeting minutes in each year’s journal was 329.[29] The Board also requested monthly reports from the governors’ offices. To assist in their timely delivery, a monthly packet service was created in 1755.[30]

By 1756, only three members of the Board that were in place in 1752 were still on the Board; they were Halifax, Andrew Stone, and James Oswald. Halifax was dissatisfied with some of the replacements. Thinking that he was never going to get a seat in the Cabinet, he demanded to be inducted in the Order of the Garter, the highest order of knighthood in Britain,[31] or he would again resign. Newcastle, now the Prime Minister, knew that only the King determined who was inducted into the Order of the Garter and there were others in line before Halifax would even be considered. In order to appease Halifax, Newcastle hinted at making him the first Secretary of State for the (West) Indies.[32] With the resignation of Henry Fox, the current Secretary of State for the Southern Department (1755-1756), Newcastle believed he could separate the colonies of the West Indies from the colonies on the mainland before filling the vacancy. Halifax was so convinced of his appointment that he wrote a long letter to Newcastle recommending that the appointment be made by the Privy Council because it was that body that had “altered the method of conducting American affairs.”[33] In June of 1757, William Pitt was appointed the new Secretary of State for the Southern Colonies (1757-1761), but Newcastle had never spoken to him regarding the change. Halifax shared the news regarding his advancement with his friends and then approached Pitt, who

stared at him and told his lordship very cooly, and very truly, that he had never heard one word of it, and he did not think that anybody had a right to contract his office to that degree, which was already too much encroached upon by the board.[34]

Halifax immediately wrote to Newcastle and resigned his position. Newcastle begged Halifax to “await developments.” The situation became worse for Newcastle because, believing that Halifax might not return to the Board, he appointed the Viscount Dupplin as First Lords Commissioner. Fortunately for Newcastle, Dupplin did not accept the position because of his health, concern that members of the Board would not support him, and because he would be “called upon to take a chief share in the debates in which I know I cannot acquit myself to my own satisfaction.”[35] Halifax was also in a tough spot; even though he could not give in again, his real problem was Pitt. The Secretary of State was against Halifax being admitted to the Cabinet and was not about to give up any part of his office to him. Eventually Newcastle convinced Pitt that there was no harm if Halifax became part of the Cabinet not as the First Lords Commissioner but only as the Earl of Halifax.[36] Pitt made it clear that the appointment was merely a personal distinction; Halifax still did have direct access to the King and all recommendations by the board still had to be handled by the Secretary of State.

Pitt may have thought he was done with Halifax but Halifax was not done with Pitt. On July 26, 1759, the governor of Jamaica, George Haldane, died. Coupled with this was the Board’s frustration with the governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Pownall who had been hand picked by Pitt for the governorship. Pownall was a man who respected the Massachusetts General Assembly as the duly elected legislative body of the people and was willing to act decisively when time did not allow him an opportunity to seek direction from the Board. Such a free-thinking individual was not what the Board wanted leading one of the most important colonies in North America. On November 12, Halifax, without informing Pitt in advance, discussed “a reshuffling” of governors with the King. On November 14, the Lords Commissioners, after receiving the King’s approval, signed off on the following changes:

that William Henry Lyttelton, Esqr. [governor of South Carolina] may be appointed Governor of Jamaica, in the room of George Haldane, Esqr. deceased; that Thomas Pownall, Esqr. Governor of the Massachusetts Bay, may be appointed Governor of South Carolina, in the room of Mr. Lyttelton . . . that Francis Bernard, Esqr., Governor of New Jersey, may be appointed Governor of the Massachusetts Bay, in the room of Mr. Pownall; and that Thomas Boone, Esqr. may be appointed Governor of New Jersey, in the room of Mr Bernard.[37]

Even though the King’s approval had been obtained, the Privy Council still had to give  formal approval. Usually the processed was reversed, that is, the Board presented their nominations to the Council who after approving them presented them to the King for his approval. This time the nominations were presented after the fact along with their commissions. Following the Council’s formal approval, Halifax sent letters to the governors informing them of their new assignments.

Halifax’s final two years at the Board were rather inactive. In 1760, Parliament requested only eight reports or representations from the Board regarding the civilian operations in the colonies—in 1755 Parliament had requested twenty-six and the total number of Board Meetings, seventy-seven, was the lowest number since 1748.

In 1761, George III, following the death his grandfather, became the King of England. If Halifax was going to leave the Board for another position, this was the time. Halifax may have come to believe that his advancement in government was not going to occur at the Board as long as Newcastle remained the Prime Minister and Pitt the Secretary of State for the Southern Department. On March 21, Halifax resigned as First Lords Commissioner of the Board of Trade; on April 3, he was appointed the Lord Lieutenant (or Viceroy) of Ireland, and on May 15, an Order in Council was passed that revoked the powers of the Board to control correspondence with the colonies and to make nominations to the Privy Council.[38]


[1]E. B. O’Callaghan, ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1854), 4: 145.

[2]“December 18, 1700,” Colonial Office Records (CO) 391 – Board of Trade, Minutes and Journals of the Board of Trade, 13/289, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom. The ex officio members were Lord Chancellor, Lord President of the Privy Council, Lord Privy Seal, First Lord of the Treasury, First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for the Southern Department and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

[3]Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, 3: 36.

[4]CO 391/64/295.

[5]CO 389/36/35-38; CO 389/36/106-07; CO 391/14/194-95; CO 391/15/103-04; “Journals of the Council of Trade and Plantations 1696-1782,” Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Officials of the Board of Trade 1660-1870, ed., J.C. Slainty (London: University of London, 1974), 3: 28-37.

[6]“January 15, 1697,” ibid., 9: 349-50.

[7]“January 21, 1706,” CO 391/18.

[8]The Journal for 1720 contains 470 pages, in 1721, 369 pages; in 1722, 262 pages, in 1733, 168 pages; in 1738, 115 pages; in 1739, 134 pages; in 1740, 130 pages; in 1741, 134 pages; in 1742, 116 pages; in 1743, 122 pages; in 1745, 131 pages; in 1746, 112 pages; and in 1747, 163 pages. Oliver Morton Dickerson, American Colonial Government, 1696-1765 (Cleveland, OH: Arthur Herbert Clark Company, 1912), 35.

[9]A. D. Paterson, ed., The Anglo-American (New York: E. L. Garvin & Co., 1846), 7: 404. Later,  Edmund Burke would call “the abolition of useless restrictions”salutary neglect.

[10]“April 1, 1715,” CO 391/25/44; “March 12, 1725,” CO 391/34/63; “August 22, 1727,” CO 391/36/190; “July 31, 1735,” CO 324/12/123.

[11]Additional Manuscripts in the British Library, 32,716 ff. 337-38. The Duke of Bedford had recently replaced the Duke of Newcastle as the Secretary of State for the Southern Department.

[12]“March 4, 1749,” CO 391/56/71.

[13]A majority of the settlers were retired soldiers.

[14]The Board assumed the role of active overseer at their meeting on March 21. Meetings then were held on March 22-28, 30, 31, April 3-8, 12-15 and 18. At most of these meetings, no other business was discussed but the Nova Scotia enterprise.

[15]“February 7, 1750,” CO 391/56, passim.

[16]24 Geo. II, c.53.

[17]At a meeting on May 23, 1751, the Board approved fifty-seven acts (of the Virginia House of Burgesses), disapproved ten, held fifteen in probation and sent five to the Treasury. Every Act was required to contain the “Suspension Clause.”

[18]A commission was the right to assume the duties of an office; instructions detailed the executive and administrative powers and duties of the office. Commissions were public documents; instructions were private. Both were drawn up by the Board of Trade and then sent to the Privy Council for approval and afterwards to the king for his approval.

[19]In 1749, a committee drew up a bill extending to the leather industry the same protections as had be granted to the woolen industry; no members of the Board were members of the committee. In 1750, a large committee was instructed to investigate and report on the state of the British fisheries. After the investigation the committee was instructed to draw up a bill – no members of the Board were on the committee. In 1752, a committee was instructed to look into relief for the poor. The drafting committee had no members of the Board on it.

[20]CO 391/56/107.

[21]Like the Board of Trade, the Cabinet was a committee of the Privy Council.

[22]Additional Manuscripts in the British Library, 32,725, f. 17.

[23]Ibid., 32,725, f. 91. The Board did not have the power to appoint or dismiss a colonial governor or to force him to obey their instructions from the King. The Privy Council retained the authority to hear colonial appeals. The Board approved any new member to colonial council.

[24]Newcastle to Halifax, November 7, 1751, ibid., 32,725, f. 378.

[25]Halifax to Newcastle, December 17, 1751, ibid., 32,994, ff. 286-87.

[26]An order in the name of the King. James Munro and Sir Almeric Fitzroy, eds., Acts of the Privy Council of England 1745-1766, Colonial series (London: Wyman and Sons, 1911), 4: 498.

[27]Halifax to Newcastle, March 26, 1752, Additional Manuscripts in the British Library, 32,726, f. 338. This order became the basic interpretation of the Board of Trade’s powers up to 1766 when it was repealed.

[28]Arthur Herbert Basye, The Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations (London: Humphrey Milford / Oxford University Press, 1925), 82.

[29]Ibid., Appendix A, 221-24.

[30]CO 391/62/76.

[31]The only members are the King, the Prince of Wales and twenty-four living members, or Companions.

[32]Additional Manuscripts in the British Library, 32,871, ff. 191, 195.

[33]Ibid., 33,030, ff. 295-96.

[34]Henry Penruddocke Wyndham, The Diary of George Bubb Dodington(London: C. H. Reynell, 1828), 208.

[35]Basye, The Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations, 98.

[36]Additional Manuscripts in the British Library, 32,997, f. 286; 32,874, f. 353

[37]Journals of the Board of Trade, 11: 59-60; The London Gazette, November 27, 1759.

[38]CO 391/68/265.

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