Chapter 17




One evening, calling on my friend, I found him poring over a mouldy account-book, among whose dates as he turned the leaves I caught that of 1765. "It came from the counting-room of William Rotch," said he, "a merchant deserving of more remembrance than he is likely to receive from this generation. We had great men in those days and down to 1849—50, men whose services in creating and extending American commerce cannot be too highly commended. The Rotches, Coffins, and Mitchells were giants of the former time, and the Starbucks, Macys, Folgers, and Gardners of the latter. But of all, William Rotch was easily chief. I consider him the greatest merchant of colonial days. He was of Quaker parentage, born here October 4, 1734, and entered about 1754 his father’s West India business, and before 1773 founded with his brothers Joseph and Francis the house of Joseph Rotch’s Sons, with branches in New Bedford and London, and an extensive trade with the other colonies, the West Indies, and the mother country.

"The commodity most largely dealt in by the firm


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was whale oil; it had many vessels in the whale fishery, and the product shipped to England found a ready market there. In return, the vessels brought all manner of commodities, which the firm distributed in its small, swift-sailing schooners to the Southern colonies and the West Indies. It is a curious fact that in due process of this trade the peace-loving Quakers became active agents in precipitating a frightful and bloody struggle. In this old book in my hand, under date of 1778, occurs this entry: ‘Invoice of 182 casks white sperm oil shipped by William Rotch, on board the ship, Dartmouth, Joseph Rotch, master, for London, on account and risk of the shipper, and goes consigned to Champion, Dickinson & Co., merchants there. This vessel was one of those from which the tea was emptied into Boston harbor a few months later.’ On reaching London with this cargo she, with the Beaver, also owned by the Rotches, and a third ship, the Eleanor, was chartered by the East India Company to convey to Boston the objectionable teas which led to the famous tea-party in Boston harbor in December, 1773.

"When the war finally came, the people looked to Mr. Rotch as the leading man of the island for counsel and protection. lie at once declared for a strict neutrality as being not only good policy, but in accordance with the principles of the Friends, which the majority of the islanders professed. But this course seemed to



A Typical Nantucket Merchant

arouse the ill-will of both parties, and the little community was soon harassed with depredations from the armed vessels of the British and Tories on the one hand and of the patriots on the other. In his autobiography, which I have here, written at the age of eighty, he gives a graphic account of one of these Tory descents. On another occasion several sloops of war and a number of transports were in sight of the island three days, intending to make a descent upon it. ‘Nothing short of the interposition of Divine Providence preserved us from apparent ruin,’ says Mr. Rotch. ‘They were in sight of us in the day time three days near Cape Poge (Martha’s Vineyard). They got under way three mornings successively, and stood for the island with a fair wind, which each morning came round against them, and the tide too came round against them, which obliged them to return to their anchorage still in view of us. Before they could make the fourth attempt, orders came for their return to New York for some other expedition. A solemn time indeed it was to us. Messengers were arriving one after another, and twice I was called up in the night with the disagreeable information that they were at hand.’

"Twice he visited the British camp once at Newport, and once at New York to induce the British Commander to grant the island a protection from British cruisers and armed vessels. He was successful in both cases, but for the act was haled before a com



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mittee of the General Court of Massachusetts on a charge of treason a law having passed that body making it high treason for any person to visit a British port without its consent. Mr. Rotch was indicted before that tribunal, but not found guilty, and the charge was finally dropped.

"A mission to Congress, near the close of the war, for a permit to allow the whaling vessels of Nantucket to go out, in which he was successful after a five weeks’ struggle, completed the merchant’s efforts on behalf of Nantucket during the war. At the close of the struggle he found all the conditions of trade and industry changed. The chief product and staple of trade of Nantucket had been whale oil. But now England, the chief oil market of the world, in revenge for the loss of her colonies, laid a duty of eighteen pounds per )on on all oil brought to her market by aliens. In consequence Nantucket oil, that bad sold at thirty pounds before the war, now dropped to seventeen. It cost twenty-five pounds to produce it, as the merchants and ship-owners found after a few years’ trial, and Mr. Rotch decided to remove to England and prosecute the fishery from there. Not meeting with much encouragement from the English Court, he crossed to France, and under the protection of Louis XVI. and a bounty from the Government established his son Benjamin in the fishery at Dunkirk. He then returned to Nantucket, but four years later, in 1790, voyaged



A Typical Nantucket Merchant

with his family to Dunkirk called thither by business interests.

"During this second visit to France he figured in an episode of historical importance from the light which it threw on some of the actors in the French revolution. The revolution had been two years in progress when early in 1791 he, with his son Benjamin and John Marsillac, appeared before the French National Assembly at Paris to present a petition to that body for certain privileges and exemptions connected with their religious principles. They asked, first, that they might not be compelled to take arms and kill men under any pretense; second, that their simple registers of births, marriages, and deaths might be deemed sufficient to legalize their marriages and births, and authenticate their deaths, and third, that they might be exempted from the taking of oaths. Mirabeau was President of the Assembly, and previous notice that this ‘Quaker petition’ was to be presented had drawn at the appointed hour every member in town and more spectators to the galleries than could be accommodated. Brissot de Warville, the traveler, and several other members came to the petitioners’ lodgings to accompany them to the chamber. ‘But,’ said one, as they were about setting out, ‘you have no cockades; you must put them on.’ ‘No,’ said the Quaker, ‘we cannot; it is contrary to our principles to wear a distinguishing badge.’ ‘But,’ they urged, ‘it is required by law, to prevent distinctions,



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that people may not be abused, for their lives are in danger without them’; referring to the mob through which it was necessary to pass to gain the doors of the Assembly. Rotch and his friends replied calmly that they could not do it, that they must go as they were and submit to what might befall them. ‘We set out,’ says Mr. Rotch, ‘with no small apprehension, but we trusted in that power whi ~a can turn the hearts of men as a watercourse is turned.’ You can fancy the spectacle these drab-coated disciples of peace presented as they pushed through the mob that then governed Paris.

"We passed through the great concourse,’ Mr. Rotch continues, ‘without interruption and reached the waiting-room of the Assembly. A messenger informed the President, and we were immediately called to the bar. John Marsillac read the petition with Brissot at his elbow to correct him in his emphasis, which he frequently did, unperceived, I believe, by all except ourselves. At the close of every subject there was a general clapping of hands, the officers endeavoring to hush them. The bushing, I thought, was hissing, from my ignorance of the language, and apprehended all was going wrong until better informed. After the reading was concluded Mirabean rose. "Quakers," said he, "who have fled from persecutors and tyrants cannot but address with confidence the legislators who have for the first time in France made the rights of mankind the basis of law, and France now reformed, France



A Typical Nantucket Merchant

in the bosom of peace, which she will always consider herself bound to revere, and which she wishes to all nations, may become another happy Pennsylvania. As a system of philanthropy we admire your principles. They remind us that the origin of every society was a family united by its manners, its affections, and its wants, and doubtless those would be the most sublime institutions which would renew the human race, and bring them back this primitive and virtuous original. The examination of your principles no longer concerns us. We have decided on that point. There is a kind of property no man would put into the common stock, the emotions of his soul, the freedom of his thought. In this sacred domain man is placed in a hierarchy far above the social state. As a citizen he must adopt a form of government, but as a thinking being the universe is his country. As principles of religion your doctrines will not be the subject of our deliberations. The relation of every man to the Supreme Being is independent of all political institutions. Between God and the heart of man, what Government would dare to interfere? As civil maxims, your claims must be submitted to the discussions of the legislative body. We will examine whether the forms you observe in order to certify births and marriages be sufficient to authenticate those descents which the divisions of property, independent of good manners, render indispensable. We will consider whether a declaration subject to the penal-



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ties against false witnesses and perjury, be not, in fact, an oath. Worthy citizens, you have already taken that civic oath which every man deserving of freedom has thought a privilege rather than a duty. You have not taken God to witness, but you have appealed to your consciences; and is not a pure conscience a heaven without a cloud? Is not that part of a man a ray of divinity? You also say that one of your religious tenets forbids you to take up arms or to kill a man under any pretense whatever. It is certainly a noble philosophical principle which thus does a kind of homage to humanity, but consider well whether defense of yourselves and your equals be not also a religious duty. You would otherwise be overpowered by tyrants. Since we have procured liberty for you and for ourselves, why should you refuse to preserve it? Had your brethren in Pennsylvania been less remote from the savages, would they have suffered their wives, their children, their parents, to be massacred rather than resist? And are not stupid tyrants and ferocious conquerors savages? The Assembly in its wisdom will consider all your requests, but whenever I meet a Quaker I will say, ‘My brother, if thou hast a right to be free, thou hast the right to prevent any one from making thee a slave. As thou lovest a fellow-creature, suffer not a tyrant to destroy him; it would be killing him thyself. Thou desirest peace, but consider, weakness invites war. General resistance would prove an universal peace."



A Typical Nantucket Merchant

"Many adventures and hair-breadth escapes were met with by the staid Friends in that time of terror, not a few of them caused by the steadfastness with which they clung to their religious convictions and observances. Mr. Rotch returned to America in 1794, and eventually settled in New Bedford, dying in 1828 at the age of ninety-four."