The customs service in Britain’s North American colonies in the eighteenth century had a violent and turbulent history. The Treasury Department in London did little to correct known problems; England was at war during much of this period and was not in a strategic position to risk antagonizing its overseas colonies. At the end of the Seven Years’ War, following Britain’s decisive victory, several successive ministries implemented reforms in an attempt to achieve more effective administrative control and raise more revenue in the colonies. The revenue was necessary, Parliament believed, to bolster the military and naval defensive positions along the borders of their far-flung empire. Among these reforms was the deputizing of the Royal Navy’s Sea Officers to help enforce customs in colonial ports.
In early 1772 Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed His Majesty’s armed schooner Gaspee into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay to aid in the enforcement of customs collection and inspection of cargo. Rhode Island had a well-earned reputation for smuggling and trading with the enemy during wartime. Dudingston and his officers quickly antagonized powerful merchant interests in the small colony. One night when the Gaspee lay hard aground, a band of Providence residents rowed out to confront the officers and crew. Before the break of dawn, Lieutenant Dudingston was shot and His Majesty’s vessel burned to the waterline.
Previous attacks on naval vessels had gone unpunished. In one case a customs yacht was actually destroyed (also by fire) with no administrative response. But in 1772 the Admiralty would not ignore the destruction of one of its military vessels on station. The American Department consulted the Solicitor and Attorney Generals who investigated and advised the Privy Council on the legal and constitutional punitive options available to them. The Crown turned to a centuries-old institution to investigate, the Royal Commission of Inquiry.
Colonial Whigs were alarmed by what they perceived to be a court operating entirely outside Rhode Island jurisdiction. They believed the Commissioners could operate wholly independently from Rhode Island’s judicial system. In Virginia the House of Burgesses was so alarmed that they formed an inter-colonial committee of correspondence to consult in the crisis with other colonial assemblies. In Boston a little-known visiting minister at Second Baptist Church preached a sermon that utilized the Gaspee affair to warn listeners about greedy monarchs, corrupt judges, and conspiracies at high levels in the London government. This sermon was printed seven different times in four colonial cities, becoming one of the most popular pamphlets of Colonial British America. This pamphlet, along with the incendiary rhetoric of numerous colonial newspaper editors, awoke colonial Whigs from a “lull” of inactivity in 1772 thus inaugurating a series of conflicts that would culminate in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
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