In 1771, the British government desperately needed to know how American colonists felt about fishing policies. Stephen Higginson filled them in, and almost got jailed as a traitor because of it.
Stephen Higginson served in many capacities during the American Revolution and the formative years of the country – military leader, representative to Congress and political intriguer.
Higginson was born in Salem, Mass., in 1743 into a family of politicians and clergymen. Well-connected, his single act of rebellion against his place in society seems to be his decision to marry Susannah Cleveland, his second cousin from Connecticut. As their families opposed the marriage (probably because of their youth), the couple ran away to New Hampshire to marry in 1764.
After returning to Salem, Higginson took up his position as a merchant trader, same as his father. He set up a home near East India Square in Salem across from the Lafayette Coffee House. Armed with introductions from his well-connected father, he sailed to England in 1771.
Stephen Higginson in London
In England, Higginson had his first critical brush with politics. Higginson, on his travels in England to introduce himself to his trading partners, found himself summoned before Parliament to answer to an investigation about New England’s fisheries.
Higginson’s testimony gave a picture of how large and vital cod fishing was to the New England economy.
Seven hundred fishing vessels, most between 40 and 70 tons, worked the waters off New England fishing for cod. It took more than 4,000 people to man those vessels, Higginson estimated. Another 2,000 worked on shore, curing and preparing the catch for sale. And another 350 vessels, employing another 3,000 people, transported the fish to market.
Between 1768 and 1772, fish accounted for 35 percent of all New England exports by value. But the interests of the English and their American colonies often diverged when it came to codfish.
American fish fed slaves in the West Indies and Catholics in Europe. This resulted in New England fishermen trading with the French, importing French sugar, rum and molasses, as well as trading directly with the French in Newfoundland. Britain implemented a series of tariffs to limit New England fishermen’s ability to trade with the French, preferring to keep such trade for Englishmen.
By 1771, the arguing over the New England fishery had gone on for 40 years, and Britain’s Navy actively seized American fishing vessels caught trading with the French. Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament who sympathized with the colonists and their position, summoned Higginson to testify.
Stephen Higginson Testifies
The British, as usual, were concerned that New England was trading too much with Spain and France, rather than England.
Higginson explained that Britain remained New England’s primary trading partner. He suggested that restricting New England trade would result in the region being unable to pay its debts to English companies.
In particular, the Parliament questioned what New England fishermen would do if the government closed the fishery entirely.
A partial transcript of his testimony:
Q. What would these people do if the Fishery was stopped?
A. I can’t readily resolve that question. I suppose they would remain where they are as long as they could subsist in hopes of being engaged in their old employment.
Q. But when that hope failed and they could no longer subsist?
A. Then they will probably go elsewhere?
Q. Whether they would settle at Halifax?
A. In general I think not … the Fishermen in Salem and other Towns are a very quiet and steady set of men They esteem the people of Halifax to be dissolute and of a quite contrary turn. I think therefore they would not sit down among a people so different in their manners. Another reason is that they think the Government of Halifax is arbitrary and have a terrible notion of it. Another, those who have been there have disliked the country very much as being inhospitable.
Q. Would they go to Miguelon and St Pierre and fish for France?
A. Don t think they would generally. From Marblehead some perhaps would.
Q. Why would they from thence?
A. Because the people there are of various nations Spaniards, Portuguese and Dutch, but the others are born in the towns where they live, have tenements and freeholds there and would not leave their place of abode, I conceive.
Return of the Traitor
News of Higginson’s appearance before Parliament spread, and upon his return to Marblehead, the colonial authorities arrested him on suspicion of traitorous conduct. Higginson had walked a fine line in Parliament, both continuing to state the American case for greater freedom in operating the fishery while defending the loyalty of the colonists.
Fortunately for his sake, Higginson had brought a detailed account of his testimony home with him. When he presented what he had said, the colonial authorities reversed themselves and praised him for his poise and presentation.
Into the History Books
During the American Revolution, Higginson ran his ships as privateers, and in 1783 Massachusetts elected him to the Continental Congress. Following the war, he participated in the military force that put down Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 and 1787.
Higginson’s most well-known legacy involves his opposition to John Hancock, during Hancock’s term as governor of Massachusetts. Higginson was a firm Federalist, along with John Adams and many others. The Federalists wanted a strong central government, and they were opposed by the Anti-Federalists who wanted the states to retain more power in the new country that they were forming.
John Hancock, meanwhile, had become something of a political chameleon. He managed to win support from enough Federalists and Anti-Federalists to serve as governor.
Stephen Higginson led probably the harshest attack on Hancock, though there were many. He published the “Laco Papers” in a newspaper, castigating Hancock for a weak military record during the Revolution. He called into question Hancock’s fitness to serve, as well as the alliances he had struck with his opponents, including Samuel Adams. In addition to printing the letters in a newspaper, under the pseudonym Laco, he also had them bound and distributed.
The Laco Papers had a remarkable effect, though not the one Higginson intended. Historians agree that the publication most likely generated sympathy for Hancock and helped extend his political reign.
Images: Stephen Higginson, Delegate to Continental Congress, New York Public Library, Max Rosenthal(Etcher)
Postcard of fishing vessels at the Portland Dock, Maine, c. 1908.