James Dick

Colonial Loyalist Merchant
"The Burning of the Peggy Stewart" by Francis Blackwell Mayer circa 1886.

“The Burning of the Peggy Stewart” by Francis Blackwell Mayer circa 1886.

Choosing sides in a revolution is never easy. In the 1770s, each American needed to decide if the abuses of the British government warranted the end of their loyalty to King George III. Complicating the basic constitutional questions were two others. If someone in a colonist’s family had already decided to remain loyal to the king, becoming a Patriot meant tearing the family apart. Many chose to become Loyalists for the sake of family unity. For the many American merchants engaged in the colonial trade, choosing independence also meant an end to the basis for their livelihood. Remaining loyal to the king might preserve important business ties with Great Britain – unless the Revolution proved successful. In that case, the price of becoming a Loyalist was being branded a traitor. At best this meant exile from one’s home, and at worst it meant being tarred and feathered, or facing death by the hangman’s noose. These questions haunted James Dick, an Annapolis merchant whose son-in-law became a Loyalist exile in the early years of the American Revolution.

James Dick was most likely born about 1708 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the son of the merchant Thomas Dick, and James began his own involvement in the Chesapeake trade during the 1720s. He advertised his business in Annapolis, Maryland newspapers as early as 1728. He married soon after, and he and his wife Margaret celebrated the birth of their eldest daughter Mary in 1732. In 1734, he left his young family temporarily in Scotland to advance his mercantile business by moving to Maryland. Arriving in Annapolis on June 1, 1734, he settled south of the city in Londontown. His company quickly grew, and in 1740, he returned to Scotland to help bring his entire family to Maryland. In Maryland, James and Margaret had three more children before Margaret’s early death in 1762.

" View of Annapolis, Maryland" watercolor circa 1800, artist unknown.

” View of Annapolis, Maryland” watercolor circa 1800, artist unknown.

On March 15, 1764, James’s daughter Jean, who was the first of James’s children born in Maryland, married Anthony Stewart, a rising star in the Chesapeake mercantile community. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1738, Anthony was the son of James Stewart, the attorney for the King’s Exchequer. After the wedding, James and Anthony entered business together as the James Dick and Stewart Company. The new firm soon secured a lucrative arrangement with the London firm of John Buchanan and Son, becoming the latter’s commercial agents in Maryland. James and Anthony managed the London firm’s one-third interest in an ironworks, pursued their debtors through the Maryland courts, and most importantly, handled Buchanan and Son’s large transactions in the tobacco trade. In 1772-1773, James and Anthony’s services as colonial agents earned more than £1,000 a year in commissions.

James and Anthony accepted dependency to a London firm in order to gain access to British credit on easy terms. As agents, they were entitled to draw large amounts of credit from John Buchanan and Son in the form of Bills of Exchange. The Bills provided short-term loans which James and Anthony used to finance their own entrepreneurial activities. In 1772-1773, the James Dick and Stewart Company borrowed £2,959 from John Buchanan and Son to support a ropemaking business, as well as retail stores in Annapolis, Londontown, and Frederick Town, Maryland, and also their own import-export trade in dry goods, wine, sugar, flour and tobacco with the West Indies, Southern Europe and Madeira. Thanks in large part to their relationship with the London firm, the James Dick and Stewart Company remained profitable into the 1770s.

Despite James and Anthony’s good fortune, the Annapolis mercantile community began to change after 1763. A new type of firm began to supersede the classic colonial model embodied by the James Dick and Stewart Company. Younger merchants in Annapolis combined resources to import goods directly from Great Britain without becoming agents for a British firm. By the late 1760s, several of these new independent firms became successful enough to compete in the export trade in tobacco as well. Without a dependence on British credit, the new firms also displayed greater political independence than many of the older Annapolis companies.

As an established agent for a British firm, James hoped for normalcy between the colonies and Great Britain. When opposition to new British tax and trade policies mounted throughout the colonies during the 1760s, James feared that the newer independent Annapolis merchants might push for a boycott of all British imports as a protest. Such a strict nonimportation plan threatened to undermine colonial trade and antagonize British merchants on whom James depended for credit. To avoid this, James and Anthony, along with other established merchants, called for a colony-wide convention to influence the drafting of a Maryland nonimportation plan. On June 22, 1769, the convention adopted a very lenient nonimportation association by comparison to other colonies. Yet even under the moderate terms of the Maryland nonimportation association, James and Anthony were guilty of violations. Before a 1773 voyage made by their ship, the Peggy Stewart, they told the captain, Robert Jackson, that after leaving Madeira he was “to return directly to this port [Annapolis] and when you come on shore bring all your letters and papers of every kind to us.” It was clearly James and Anthony’s intention to smuggle Madeira wine into Maryland, further instructing Jackson that “before you see us do not mention what quantity of wine you have on board or to whom any of it belongs.”

The Maryland Gazette 5 September 1765, printed by Jonas Green

The Maryland Gazette 5 September 1765, printed by Jonas Green

Despite their flaunting of the nonimportation agreements, James and Anthony avoided further political difficulties in 1770-1773 because relations between Great Britain and the colonies improved after Parliament repealed many of its tax policies. Economic disaster struck the firm in 1773, however, when a Scottish banking crisis led to the failure of John Buchanan and Son. The loss of James and Anthony’s British connection was a terrible shock and forced them to become agents for another London merchant, James Russell. The relationship proved disastrous. Russell consigned a shipment of tea aboard the Peggy Stewart, and with the passage of the hated Tea Act the year before, any attempt to land tea at a colonial port begged for trouble. When news of the ship’s cargo reached Annapolis before the arrival of the vessel, James and Anthony faced a crisis. No longer able to hide the nature of the cargo aboard the Peggy Stewart, they needed to decide whether to pay the tea tax and risk the wrath of the mob, or refuse to pay the tea tax and risk alienating their British connections. When they decided to pay the tax, the Revolutionary leaders in Annapolis debated whether to simply burn only the tea or to burn the ship as well. The committee decided to burn only the tea, but events had already progressed beyond the control of the Patriot leaders. In October 1774, a mob descended on the Peggy Stewart and burned the ship in Annapolis harbor. The burning of the Peggy Stewart helped solidify Patriot opposition to Great Britain, and effectively brought about the end of the James Dick and Stewart Company.
James commented in a November 1774 letter to Philadelphia merchant Henry Hill, that “the loss we sustained by the Destruction of the Peggy Stewart falls heavy and the tide of popular Clamour has run much against ,us on Account of the part which our A.S. [Anthony Stewart] was innocently led to act.” James trusted that “when calm reason resumes her empire . . . our Conduct will appear in a different light.” He was wrong. The following year Anthony left Maryland for England, and his family followed soon after. The partnership dissolved in 1775, and James retired to nearby Londontown where he was known locally as “the old Tory.” James remained hopeful as late as September 1775, after the opening of hostilities at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, that there might still be a peaceful settlement between the colonies and Great Britain.
James’s optimism for a settlement arose more from his own personal desire for a return to his old life, than any real sense that peace might follow. Like many others, James remained loyal more to the old order than to the old king. He commented to Anthony that “several articles in the papers by the last post gives me great reason to imagine that a Negotiation will be entered into.” He encouraged Anthony not to “enter into any disputes” on the Revolution. James greatly wished to see Anthony again before he died, and feared that their enemies might use Anthony’s statements against him, and not allow him to return to Maryland.

$1 Colonial currency from the Province of Maryland.

$1 Colonial currency from the Province of Maryland.

James remained committed to the idea of repaying his debts, telling James Russell that he “would rather sell the shirt of my back rather than anyone should be late a shilling by us.” He conducted very little commercial business in the early years of the war, and was barely able to support himself by hiring out his slaves. Known to his neighbors as the “Old Tory,” he was not otherwise harassed by Patriots, probably due to his advanced age. By the late 1770s, severe inflation gripped the country and the market for hired slave labor disappeared. Finding that he could no longer hire out his slaves, James tried to sell them at the inflated prices of the day. His attempts usually failed, and he was left in increasingly desperate circumstances. Now in his seventies, James died in Londontown, Maryland in 1780.

Primary Source Documents: James Dick

The following passages are taken from the James Dick and Stewart Company Letter Book, 1773-1781, Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, (Perkins Library, Special Collections, Duke University).

James Dick & Stewart Co. to Meredith and Clymer [merchants], May 7, 1773, concerning the new sloop purchased by Dick and Stewart:

. . . We find by not mentioning the Name of the Capt of the Sloop we have led you into an Error. The Sloop’s Name is Peggie Stewart, the Master’s Richard Jackson. she was built the latter End of the year 1771 & this is the first voyage she ever made to Sea, having been hitherto employed in our Bay trade .

Anthony Stewart to Dyson & Rogers Co. [merchants], May 27, 1774, on his determination not to be swayed by radical opinions:

. . . The affairs of Boston are likely to produce great Discontents in America. Inclosd you have our gazette by which you will see the steps some gentlemen of this City have taken, they are by no means approvd of by the whole, many thinking the proceeding very premature and as to the opinion that no Lawyer ought to bring suits for british merchants, there are many who think such a Sentiment both Dishonest & Dishonorable. I declared openly against that measure at the meeting & was joind by many gentlemen present – Baltimore Town has as yet come into no Resolution & its thought will act with caution – Its difficult to steer in these times, but I’m determined never to join in anything which I think an act of injustice. .

James Dick & Stewart Co. to Henry Hill [a Philadelphia merchant], June 10, 1774, on the probability of a war:

. . . the affairs of America at this time bear a very unfavorable aspect, and it behooves every well wisher to the Colonies & the mother country to consider well & Join heartily in such measures as will effectually secure that independency to every American which a british subject has a right to enjoy. If the parliament pursues the measures which its said they are about to do. we apprehend matters must readily come to a very serious conclusion. . .

James Dick & Stewart to William Petrie & Son [merchants], August 15, 1774, on repaying debts owed:

We are . . . sorry your expectations will not be answered by receiving the Remittances from the sail [sale] of your Sail Cloth. It is truely not our fault, and we can assure, the transaction of this affair has cost us as much uneasiness as if the effects had been our own . . . we will endeavor to remit you fully in six months from this time, nothing will prevent us but the Distraction of the times, which occasions a Difficulty in procuring bills of exchange which from their Scarcity we apprehend will rise in value, that is our money will fall in value . . . we acknowledge ourselves indebted to you the above mentioned sum of £686.7.3 Sterling and will pay you 5 pCent [percent] Interest thereon for whatever part thereof remains unremitted in Six months . .

James Dick & Stewart Co. regarding the loss of the Peggy Stewart:

September 22, 1774

. . .The man of War now lies in our Road, and we are informed will be cruising about the Bay with Mr. Randolph and his family till some time in October so that under these circumstances it would be very dangerous to risk property in any vessel not strictly equipted according to Law. A severe seizure was made last year on a cruise of a like Nature and Mr. R. as a judge did not show much leniaty wherefore we would choose to keep clear of his tribunal. . .

November 18, 1774

. . . The loss we sustained by the Destruction of the Peggy Stewart falls heavy and the tide of popular Clamour has run much against us on account of the part which our A.S. [Anthony Stewart] was innocently led to act in that transaction, but when calm reason resumes her empire, we trust our Conduct will appear in a different light, not only to our friends but even to the Conviction of our Enemies. . .

November 22, 1774

. . . We wish you had acted more cautious and not have suffered Capt. Jackson to take the tea on board but we suppose you was not aware of the Consequences – the loss falls heavy but its what we must put up with. . .

James Dick & Stewart Co. to James Russell [a London merchant], February 24, 1775, on James’s hopes for a quick settlement of the Revolutionary crisis:

. . . We wish you that the present disturbances may be settled to the Mutual Satisfaction of G Britain and the Colonies but we much doubt the Completion of that wish from the temper which prevails at present in both Countries. . .

James Dick & Stewart Co. to J[ohn] Glassell [merchant], March 10, 1775, on the company’s desire to not make any transactions in the light of the nonexportation agreements:

. . . Mr. Kennedy from Baltimore calld on us about ten days ago to inquire if we wanted any hemp brought from your place, but we told him we had not, neither did we mention your name or desire him to apply to you–The truth is, we would not chuse [choose] in these times to make any further engagements, the more especially as we find the demand for Cordage rather [decreased] owing to the Dilemna people are under here with respect to the fate of the Congress proceedings as to nonexportations. . .

James Dick & Stewart Co. to Henry Hill [a Philadelphia merchant], March 24, 1775, asking for a credit advance in order to participate in a commercial venture in Madeira:

We wish it suited as to adventure with you in a voyage to Madeira, but the present scarcity of money, and the Certainty of our effects lying long in the Island without any Benefit arising therefrom, are Obstacles which cannot be got over. Country produce has fallen considerably of late wheat is [selling] . . . at 5/9 [five shillings, nine pence per bushel] and flour at 14/ [14 shillings per barrel], but such is the Scarcity of Cash, that those who incline to purchase cannot go to market, for want of a sale for Bills of Exchange, which we think might be bought at present at 55 pCt Exchange [155% of face value]. If your house would engage to remit to London we should have no objection in joining with you in such a Cargo, as you may think would suit the madeira market . . .

James Dick to James Russell [a London merchant], September 13, 1775, assuring him that the company would continue to be responsible for its debts despite Anthony’s departure for London:

. . . Pray God the disputes between the two [countries] may be speedily settled, our A.S. [Anthony Stewart] who will deliver you this is under the necessity of leaving us for a time . . . There being no business at this time . . . he brings with him what few bills we have been able to raise and . . . will pay to our Crs. [creditors] in London . . . I have only to promise & declare for myself that should any publick unforseen calamity or distress deprive us of our property, and put it out of our power to do the justice to these we owe to which ought to be done, I would sell the shirt of[f] my back rather than anyone should be late a shilling by us . .

James Dick to Anthony Stewart, September 13, 1775, on James’s hopes for Anthony and Jean’s eventual return to Maryland:

. . I shall not by this opportunity write any farther than to conject you by the love you have for Jeany & the [grand]children, that you do not enter into any disputes at home on the difference between Brittan & the colonys, depend on it of any thing falls from you that may make your return disagreeable it will be wrote of and much added to it that you never uttered or thought of . . . Certain ruin would be the consequence as nobody what ever can settle our affairs to so much advantage as you yourself being here and Present . . . I real[l]y think that several articles in the papers by the last post gives me great reason to imagine that a Negotiation will be entered into .& then I make not the leas[t] doubt of a happy reconciliation taking place. We all join in Love and wishing you and your little boy a happy voyage . . .

James Dick to Messrs. Lux & Bowlie, November 16, 1776, concerning the hire of James’s slaves and their clothing requirements:

. . . if you will let me know pr [per] first Opportunity, what winter Cloathing the 5 Negroes I hired to you are at present in want of that I may get it provided for them & sent up–or if you furnished them with any summer Cloathing or since with any part of winter Cloathing, pray be so good as to send me an Account there of [up] to this time . . .

James Dick to Archibald Buchanan [a Baltimore merchant], December 1779, on the possible sale of one of James’s slaves:

. . . I observe what you say about the Negroe Boy, I do real[l]y think that Considering the Depreciation of the Money he should sell for three thousand Pounds, you think he will not sell for so much. I observe in the sundry advertisements of selling Negroes at Publick Vendue if such a thing may be legally done . . . I wou[l]d not want him to go under two thousand five hundred pounds and as much more as defray the charges of the doctors bill and commission on the Vendue . . .

For Further Reading:

Edward Papenfuse, In Pursuit of Profit: The Annapolis Merchants in the Era of the American Revolution, 1763-1805 (1975).
Ronald Hoffman, A Spirit of Dissension: Economics, Politics, and the Revolution in Maryland (1973).
Jean Lee, The Price of Nationhood: The American Revolution in Charles County (1994).