Joshua Johnson's Letterbook 1771-1774 Letters From A Merchant in London To His Partners in Maryland. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1979.
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Among the few extant records of eighteenth-century London merchants, the most interesting may well be those of Joshua Johnson, London partner of the Annapolis firm of Wallace, Davidson & Johnson. Preserved in the Maryland Hall of Records, they contain a complete set of Johnson's accounts and letterbooks for his first years in London, 1771-7. We have selected for publication here the major part of Johnson's letters to his partners, 1771-4, which are noteworthy for their detail, candour and didacticism. Because none of the partners had been in London before, Johnson felt obliged to send his associates unusually long, expository letters explaining how buying and selling and credit were best managed in London. This pedagogical quality makes the correspondence an extremely useful source for historians of commercial practice and ethos in eighteenthcentury London. (fn. 1)
Although overseas trade was the most dynamic sector of the British economy in the period 1700-75, and exports to North America and the West Indies the most dynamic sector of the export trades even at London, relatively few business records of London or outport merchants of the period have survived. Most businesses destroy their old records after some prudent delay. To the normal destructiveness of time, this century has added the effects of aerial bombardment, the paper drives of two world wars and the 'cleaning out' that inevitably goes with removals made relatively more frequent by massive rebuilding. Even so, it is strange that so few records of London merchant firms trading to North America have survived because most such firms in business at the time of the American Revolution had to keep their old records as evidence to support compensation claims until at least 1811—and much remained not quite settled for decades after that. Even so, at some point either the petitioners' solicitors or the treasury clerks handling cases of this kind decided that such records were no longer needed as evidence and they disappeared even more often than the records of other contemporary or earlier firms.
Thus, ironically, almost the only records surviving of London merchants trading to America on the eve of the Revolution are those of firms with American partners who took their ledgers and other documents back across the Atlantic and did not have to present them to the treasury as evidence for compensation claims after the war. In this category belong the correspondence of William Lee and John Norton, extracts from which were published many years ago. (fn. 2) A third and much more valuable example is the body of records left behind by Joshua Johnson among the chancery records in the Maryland Hall of Records, Annapolis. (The survival of these records is analogous to that of many business records in the 'Chancery Masters' Exhibits' in the Public Record Office and the 'Unextracted Processes' in the Scottish Record Office.) Johnson, an American merchant in London during 1771-7 and again after the war, returned to Maryland in the late 1790s and in 1799 commenced a suit in chancery there against his prewar partners, Charles Wallace and John Davidson (deceased). The suit had not been terminated when Johnson died in 1802. Although Wallace and Davidson's executor withdrew the records they had deposited as evidence, Johnson's executors did not. We can only speculate as to the reason, but it was not ignorance. (Johnson came from an accomplished Maryland family and his daughter married the future president, John Quincy Adams.) The executors' inaction was our good fortune.
The exceptional quality of the Johnson archive lies first in its completeness. Here we have a virtually unbroken set of letterbooks, ledgers, journals, sales books, etc. Only the loose incoming letters are missing. Since there is no indication that any such letters were withdrawn, those presented as evidence were probably destroyed or lost through carelessness before Maryland's chancery records were transferred to the Hall of Records in the 1930s.
The second quality that sets the Johnson records apart from most other surviving business records is their frankness—pedagogical, commercial, and psychological. Johnson's letters to most of his business correspondents are conventional, business-like and terse. His letters to his partners are quite another matter. Neither Johnson nor his partners had any personal experience of business in London before Johnson went there to represent his firm in 1771. Consequently, Johnson felt that his partners had to be educated about metropolitan business practices. During the first two years, 1771-3, his letters are filled with didactic material, mini-lectures on how business was conducted in London: how each commodity desired in Maryland could best be purchased, the advisability of dealing with one firm rather than another, the characteristic credit terms available for each commodity, how one made insurance and used banks, and so on. Moreover, Johnson was a great gossip. His letters to his partners contain far more information on competitors than can be found in the surviving records of any other contemporary firm known to this writer. Johnson too had a rather excitable, even passionate personality, that found one outlet in his letters to his partners. Week by week, we get reports not only on his physical health but on his state of mind, a state that tended to oscillate markedly between elation and depression as business conditions brightened or darkened. Johnson had only been in London a year when the business community was struck by the panic and depression of 1772-3. Johnson eventually came through this crisis unscathed, but for a while it seemed touch and go. Many of his competitors went under and at least one went to debtors' prison. He had to write frantic letter after frantic letter to his partners in Maryland explaining just how bad the situation was and how merchants and their creditors were behaving. All this tension, detail and candour adds immensely to the interest and historical value of his correspondence as an exposure of the inner workings of the London mercantile community in the eighteenth century.
Joshua Johnson, his partners and his business
Joshua Johnson (1742-1802) sprang of an extensive Maryland family originally from Norfolk. Thomas Johnson (1) of Great Yarmouth emigrated c. 1689 to Maryland, where he was relatively unsuccessful as planter and trader. His only son, Thomas (2) (1702-c. 1777), did better as a planter and frequently represented Cecil County in the Lower House of the Assembly, though his principal residence was in Calvert County on the Patuxent in the heart of the southern Maryland tobacco country. Thomas (2) had a large and quite successful family, including seven sons. His second son, Thomas (3) (styled 'Jr.' in the letterbooks) (1732-1819), became a prosperous lawyer in Annapolis, acquired land thereabouts, and was first elected to the provincial assembly by Anne Arundel County in 1762; he became a delegate to the Continental Congress, the first Revolutionary governor of Maryland, and later a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Four of his younger brothers settled in western Maryland, James and Roger being pioneers in the nascent iron industry there. Of the seven, only Joshua had a 'foreign' career. (fn. 3)
Of Joshua's business partners, we know less. The most important was Charles Wallace (1727-1812) of Annapolis, a wealthy landowner and businessman, with broad interests. Johnson's letters treat him as available only for non-routine business such as obtaining consignments from important planters. A member of the Maryland Lower House and some of its important committees, he became contractor for building the new Maryland State House or Stadhouse—a £7,500 project. (fn. 4) The second partner, John Davidson (1738-94), a native of Scotland, is far more obscure. For a number of years he combined a mercantile career with the post of deputy collector and deputy comptroller of the Annapolis subdistrict of the Patuxent customs district. Combining customs office with trade was against regulations but tolerated, perhaps because of the political influence of the absentee collector (Benedict Calvert, natural son of the proprietor) and comptroller (James Gibbs). Davidson seems to have looked after the firm's day-to-day business in Annapolis, particularly bookkeeping (87b). Johnson was to wish Davidson would hire someone else to do the books and spend more time going out collecting debts. (fn. 5)
At one stage in the 1760s, Johnson, Wallace and Davidson all appear to have been in business separately in Annapolis importing British and perhaps other goods for wholesale and retail sale there. In 1764, however, we find reference to a firm in Annapolis consisting of Charles Wallace, John Davidson and Thomas Johnson. (This is probably a silent partnership of Joshua's brother, Thomas Johnson, Jr., the lawyer.) (fn. 6) This may be the firm of Charles Wallace & Co. which the letters show exported wheat and flour to Iberia in the late 1760s. However, it would appear that Wallace and Davidson kept some of their interests separate. (There is a later allusion to another firm styled Davidson & Johnson.) (fn. 7) Even so, the key figures, though competitors, were on good terms. Wallace in 1769-71 was engaged in substantial real estate development in Annapolis including a terrace of four large shops with two stories of chambers above facing the new wet dock then being built. This was probably the largest private building project undertaken up to then in Annapolis. One of the planned units was to be owned by Joshua Johnson and used as a salesroom in competition with Wallace nearby. (fn. 8)
In early 1771, however, the three merchants decided to merge their separate import businesses into a single firm, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson. The partnership contract of 22 April 1771 provided for equal shares, with Johnson representing the firm in London and Wallace and Davidson handling the Annapolis end. Thomas Johnson (4) (styled 'III' by his contemporaries and called 'Tommy' in the letters), a nephew of Joshua, was to be employed as a clerk in the firm. Joshua Johnson was to devote his time exclusively to buying goods for the firm in London and was to be allowed his passage thither and £30 a year for rent. The Annapolis partners were to remit him bills of exchange; tobacco or other commodity shipments were not then envisaged. (fn. 9) The Annapolis business would be conducted in Wallace's new terrace building while Johnson's building would be leased when finished.
We do not know the total capital of the new firm but, when Johnson went over to London, the initial working capital of the London branch was £3,000, an advance from the Annapolis main house. Further sums were remitted to him in subsequent years, obtained in part by borrowing in Maryland. A substantial part of the £7,500 appropriated for the new State House was advanced by the commissioners (including Wallace and Thomas Johnson Jr.) to Wallace who lent it to his firm at 3 per cent. In 1775, the firm still owed £3,223 (Maryland currency) on this account, as well as £349:8:0 sterling to the Maryland Provincial Loan Office, £1,000 (local currency) to the Church Commissioners and £3,800 sterling to the wealthy Mrs Anne Tasker, as well as lesser sums to others. (fn. 10) In the letters, Johnson was to remind his partners many times that it was prudent to borrow money for 3½ per cent in Maryland when it could earn much more in London.
When Johnson sailed for England in April 1771, the trade between Britain and the Chesapeake was divided institutionally into two distinct sectors: northern and southern, each of which accounted for about half the trade. The northern sector, centred on Glasgow, Liverpool and (to a declining degree) Whitehaven, was conducted primarily by firms which operated chains of stores in Virginia, Maryland and (to a limited extent) North Carolina where they sold European, West Indian and Asian goods and bought tobacco. The southern sector, centred on London and Bristol, was still primarily a commission business with planters and traders in the Chesapeake consigning tobacco for sale to 'factors' or commission merchants in those ports and ordering goods in return. Some, but not all, of the London commission merchants were also engaged in the 'cargo trade'; those so involved would purchase substantial 'cargoes' of British goods on credit (often twelve-fifteen months) for the account of local traders in the Chesapeake from whom they expected payment in tobacco or bills of exchange before the suppliers' credit period expired. The Glasgow and other 'northern' merchants got a disproportionate share of the cheaper tobacco of tidewater Virginia, the Potomac and the Eastern Shore of Maryland which they often sold quickly to the French monopoly for ready cash. The 'southern' consignment merchants by contrast got a disproportionate share of the superior Virginia leaf, suitable for the English and Irish markets, and the bright leaf of Patuxent and Patapsco in Maryland, much sought after in Holland, Germany and northern Europe.
Socially, the London Chesapeake merchants, among whom Johnson was to move, can be divided into five main groups. There were first of all the Quaker grandees (O. Hanbury & Co.; Silvanus Grove; Mildred & Roberts), second generation firms, relatively wealthy and quite conservative in credit matters. They seemed to Johnson to be stagnating or pulling out of the trade. In fact, Hanbury and Mildred founded banks in the 1770s and Grove became deputy governor of the London Assurance of which he was a director for decades. Second, there were the old English firms (Carey, Moorey & Welch; John Norton & Sons; John Bland; Matthias Gale; Lyonel & Samuel Lyde; Maurice Griffith; Samuel Athawes; Thomas Philpot; James Anderson, among others), all, except the last two, more important in the Virginia trade than the Maryland. The first three named had mercantile or family antecedents in the trade going back to the mid-seventeenth century; the others were all in at least the second generation. Most of them also had family connections in the Chesapeake which helped them attract consignments. Some of them dabbled in the 'cargo trade' but in general they were not notably aggressive. Third were the Scots (John Buchanan & Son; James Russell; William & Robert Molleson; Perkins, Buchanan & Brown [?]; Dunlop & Wilson; Robert & Robert Bogle & Scott). The first three almost monopolised the trade in the best Maryland tobacco from Patuxent and Patapsco and were regarded by Johnson as his most serious rivals. The London Scots were very aggressive and pushed the 'cargo trade' to its limits. Fourth was a small group of new English firms (Christopher Court, Thomas Eden, perhaps Frank & Bickerton) who were almost as aggressive as the Scots. Finally, there were the new Americans, recently established firms consisting in whole or part of native Americans with strong roots in the tobacco growing areas. These included West & Hobson; Barnes & Ridgate; John Morton Jordan; Deberdts, Lee & Sayre; and finally Joshua Johnson himself.
The £3,000 taken by Johnson to London was in bills of exchange drawn by Davidson on Osgood Hanbury & Co. (6a). (fn. 11) Since the partners did not intend shipping tobacco, they hoped for assistance from the Hanburys, the wealthiest firm in the London tobacco trade. The house was founded in the 1720s by the Quaker John Hanbury who was joined by his cousin Capel in the 1740s; after John's death in 1758 it was continued by Capel and John's son Osgood. When Capel died in 1769, the firm was continued, as Osgood Hanbury & Co., by Osgood in partnership with Capel's widow, Mary, until such time as Capel's son John (1751-1801) came of age. In 1774, the firm was reorganised as Hanbury & Lloyd, on being joined by Osgood's brother-in-law John Lloyd (1751-1811) of the Birmingham family (131b). The Hanburys were part of the banking cousinhood of Quakers who were to be so fabulously wealthy in the next century; when Osgood died in 1784, his executors included a Lloyd, a Barclay and a Gurney. (fn. 12) Johnson found the young partners, John Hanbury and John Lloyd, rather ignorant of the trade and Osgood disinclined to push it (83a, 105a, 131b). In fact, after his cousin Capel's death, Osgood had begun to disengage from tobacco. In 1770, he put £5,000 of his own capital into the bank he founded with his Birmingham brother-in-law, Sampson Lloyd (1728-1807): Hanbury, Taylor, Lloyd & Bowman, a London ancestor of Lloyds Bank. Within a few years, he and his sons were to confine themselves to banking or venture in brewing, as did his son Sampson Hanbury and cousin John. (fn. 13) These moves were of little consolation to Joshua Johnson, who would have preferred introduction to a more enterprising house.
Because of these introductions and Davidson's previous business with the Hanburys, Johnson chose to entrust his cash to their affiliated bank (Hanbury, Taylor, Lloyd & Bowman), but almost the only credit service they performed for him was discounting accepted bills of exchange (6a, 13a). In the difficult year following the crisis of June 1772, his Annapolis partners sent Johnson a letter of credit which, they hoped, would induce Osgood Hanbury to make them a substantial advance—but to little purpose (83a, 84a, 86). The Hanburys became increasingly suspicious and uncooperative as the new firm's business expanded and impinged on their own, so that Johnson found them and their friends less useful. He soon entrusted his banking to Prescott, Grote & Co. (45b), (fn. 14) one of whose partners, Andrew Grote, was a wealthy London merchant sprung of a Dutch family established at Bremen and a big buyer of tobacco for Holland and Germany—a useful friend to a Maryland merchant in London. (fn. 15)
By sending their partner, Joshua Johnson, to London, the new firm of Wallace, Davidson & Johnson hoped to go behind their previous suppliers and buy on better terms. At first, they intended to continue making remittances only in bills of exchange. Johnson's mission was entirely that of a buyer, intended to expand the scope of their limited capital by taking fullest advantage of available commercial credit (commonly twelve months in the export trades). For each commodity shipped, he would find the sellers who offered the most generous and flexible credit. Equally, he would make sure that, when he was in funds (as he was on his arrival), he obtained the full rebate for early payment (commonly computed at 10 per cent per annum). It would also be his job to study carefully the prices offered by sellers of taxed or subsidised commodities, calculating whether it would be more to the firm's advantage to buy at the full internal, 'long' price and then go to the trouble and expense of obtaining the bounty or drawback from customs (a tedious procedure), or whether he ought not rather buy at the 'short', external price and leave the drawback or bounty to the seller (26d). He would also have time to select all his purchases after personal inspection, while the bigger houses (Russell, in particular) bought unseen on price and credit terms only (19). With the advantages of bounties, drawbacks, discounts, long credits, and better selection, the partners calculated that they would be able to buy so much more advantageously in London that they could well afford the expense of maintaining Johnson there (2a), even though he had nothing to do but buy for them and do similar limited errands for some Baltimore houses, particularly William Lux & Bowly.
Johnson also had hopes at first of getting behind not only the export merchants but also their suppliers, the London middlemen, and buying directly from manufacturers. On arrival in Bristol, in May 1771, he made contact with a large-scale shoe manufacturer, but later found it more feasible to buy shoes in London (6c, 10, 36, 41c). He had hopes too of a trip to Holland and Germany and of arranging with someone at Bremen to buy German linens ('ozenbrigs' or 'oznabrigs') for him, but was detained by illness (15b, 31a). He did travel through the Midlands manufacturing districts in the spring of 1772, though he failed to find 'large warehouses well stocked'. The small putting-out hardware manufacturers visited at Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Bromsgrove, Birmingham, Coventry and Woodstock were totally dependent on the big, wholesale ironmongers of Bristol and London and did little marketing by themselves (35a). Even if there was a reliable supplier at Birmingham, Johnson found it impossible to buy ironmongery and cutlery there advantageously except for cash, an increasingly unattractive prospect (41c, 47a). Save for a few nail purchases at Birmingham (for which six months' credit was available), some 'cottons' from Wales and an occasional order to a sailcloth maker at Lichfield (to whom he had been personally recommended), he thereafter made no effort to buy directly in the country (17a, 128a).
Even 'in town', Johnson found purchasing conventions quite complicated. Young John Hanbury took him around 'to all his tradesmen [suppliers, some of whom were richer than all but a few export merchants] to introduce and recommend me to them' (2a). (Hanburys agreed to help, provided that Johnson stayed out of the tobacco trade (3a).) If silks could be bought for fifteen months' credit, linen, woollens, and ironmongery generally had to be paid for in twelve, chinaware in six, grocery and lead shot in nine. Some comestibles, particularly sugar, had to be paid for in cash or a sixty-day bill or note (as tobacco often did), while tea could be most economically purchased for cash at the East India Company's auctions (6a, b, 17a, b, 26a, d, 41b, c, 59a, 65a). (Because of the non-importation agreements, Johnson was reluctant to touch tea, except when cleared by his partners in 1772-3.) (fn. 16) Again and again he had to instruct his partners that differences in credit terms were reflected finely in prices, and that they would do well to borrow (particularly when in Maryland they could get money for as little as 3½ per cent) for the sake of the rebate at 10 per cent on early payment of goods sold at long credit (26d, 41b, c). When not in cash (as in 1773), he had perforce to deal with the largest houses, best able to offer long credits. In such circumstances, of course, he could not expect to be treated as well as in 1771, when he paid cash or settled early (80a, c).
There were also problems of package and quality, particularly in linens, the major single item in Johnson's purchases. He divided his first Irish linen purchases between Barclays, the great Quaker linen-merchants (connected with the Hanburys), and David Harvey, though Harvey would not give more than six months' credit and 'will not break but only sell in lots as put up in Ireland' (6b). One reason was that Harvey, Irish linen-merchant of Lawrence Lane, Cheapside, sold his linens on commission for printers in Ireland, while David and John Barclay, linen-merchants at no. 108 Cheapside (and later bankers), traded on their own account, employing agents in Ireland who purchased linens from twenty-five different printers, as well as exporting on their own account to New York, Philadelphia and the West Indies. Johnson also divided his first purchase of German linens between Barclays and Benjamin Mee, Son & Cassau: 'the latter is a very capital wholesale Hamburg house who serve many of the linen-drapers to the amount of thousands per annum. They both are importers of it and the only difference respecting the sales is you may have a single piece of Barclays and not less than 10 pieces of Mees & Co.' (6b, 41b). (fn. 17) Later, he was to prefer Nash, Eddowes & Martin, who received linens from twenty to thirty Irish printers and sold much to the American trade; but his partners were unimpressed with their quality, despite attractive price and credit terms (e.g. 6b, 41b, 45a, 49, 72c, 90). (fn. 18)
Silks, fancy cottons, and woollens were even greater problems, because of higher unit costs and worry over whether what was 'fashionable' in London would be recognised as such in Maryland. Johnson thought of trying to buy cloth at the Bristol Fair (14), but found it more prudent to buy woollens like other things in London. There he favoured the big warehousemen-merchants, Mauduit, Wright & Co., 'the first house in that way', run by the celebrated Dissenters, Jasper (1697-1772) and Israel Mauduit (1708-87). He found the latter so suspicious and demanding during the credit stringency of 1773, however, that he had to transfer his cloth business to John Tate and other warehousemen (41b, 95, 96b, 113, 151a). (fn. 19)
From the first, Johnson expected to ship his partners goods worth £10,000-£12,000 yearly. His shipments in summer 1771 gave such satisfaction that he rather expanded operations in the opening months of 1772, shipping over £17,000 worth between December 1771 and July 1772. (fn. 20) As he only brought £3,000 with him, continued operations depended on the timely arrival of bills of exchange from his partners. He preferred London bills and advised his partners to pay a ½ per cent premium for them. He did not trust the outports much; having desired to avoid employing correspondents there to handle bills, he discovered he would instead have to pay strangers a ½ per cent commission for such services. Outport bills were also slower to collect: even if payable in London, a week or two might be lost while they were sent to the ports of address for acceptance (14).
The trade had its rhythm. 'Spring goods' were purchased between November and January and shipped in the New Year to reach Maryland in February or March. 'Fall goods' were shipped in June or July to be in Maryland by early September, before the autumn meeting of the Provincial Court and 'the September races'. Johnson frequently urged his partners to send their orders well in advance, to give him a month or two in which to shop carefully (15a, c, 17b, 19). He could afford to purchase or order goods a month or more before shipment because the year's customary credit began, not with the order, but with the date of the invoice or shipment (14). As often as not, however, his partners were slow in getting their orders to him and he had to scramble at the end. He was very jealous of his biggest competitor, the firm of William & Robert Molleson, who always seemed to get their exports first to Maryland and their tobacco soonest home (8, 39a, 41a, 101, 129, 143).
All in all, the affairs of the London branch of Wallace, Davidson & Johnson promised well at the beginning of June 1772, on the eve of the great financial crisis. During the spring, Johnson reported a few striking failures in London and Cadiz, but had no sense of the extreme misgivings which had developed as early as April among the bank directors and other city grandees (31b, 37). (fn. 21) Thus a note of ingenuous amazement runs through his letters of June-July 1772 as he reports the failure of Neale, James, Fordyce & Down; the sudden collapse of other houses first in London, then in Edinburgh; and, all too soon, failures in the Chesapeake trade itself, starting with Robert & Robert Bogle & Scott, a new Scottish house in London. Next year and beyond, he was to report often that yet another house in the Chesapeake trade had called in its creditors. In some cases (e.g. James Russell, one of the biggest houses in the trade), the creditors decided to continue the business on its previous scale, but under the supervision of trustees. In others (like the important Maryland house of John Buchanan & Son), calling in the creditors was the first step in winding up the firm (41e, 42-3, 76b, 78).
The crash of 1772 is generally associated with unwise credit expansion, through the drawing and redrawing of bills between London and Scotland, and with the excessive speculation on the stock market that undid Sir George Colebrooke, Governor of the East India Company, and Alexander Fordyce the banker. There were aggravating factors in the Chesapeake trade. High tobacco and wheat prices in the late 1760s had greatly increased liquidity in the Chesapeake and stimulated the formation and expansion of autochthonous business firms. These were supplied from London by a new generation of consignment houses who came to specialise in the 'cargo trade': on the receipt of orders, but with no effects in hand, the consignment merchant purchased goods in London on twelve-fifteen months' credit for a correspondent in the Chesapeake, on the understanding that the American house would remit either tobacco or bills of exchange before the expiry of credit from the warehousemen, linen-drapers, or other suppliers. This trade assumed a continuing strong demand for European goods in the Chesapeake, a firm bill market between the Bay and London, and a continued buoyancy in tobacco prices. These need not last forever. (fn. 22)
In 1770, Virginia and Maryland produced the first of five successive record-breaking crops. The 1770 crop was shipped in 1771; by the end of that year, as warehouses filled in London and Glasgow and word came of another great crop, prices began to sag. By 1772 they were in full retreat. (fn. 23) This meant that tobacco shipped to cover debts in Britain, on the basis of optimistic price expectations, in fact proved insufficient. Similarly, bills of exchange drawn on London by consigning tobacco-planters and merchants, and thought to be covered by tobacco shipped, proved overdrawn. In the optimistic early months of 1772, most of the new, aggressive houses in the London Chesapeake trade tried to oblige their correspondents in America both by accepting their bills of exchange, even without sufficient effects in hand, and by continuing to ship cargoes ordered, even though the previous year's cargoes had not yet been fully paid for. These over-shipments created a glut in the dry-goods trade in the Chesapeake by the early months of 1772, reducing the velocity of trade and making remittance to Britain even more difficult (38). Thus, when the crisis of 1772 broke, many of the most active houses in the trade were severely extended.
All this was immediately relevant to Joshua Johnson even though he was outside the tobacco trade and, except for shipments to his own firm in Annapolis, had sent only modest cargoes to his brothers and a few close friends like William Lux & Bowly of Baltimore. (fn. 24) In June 1772 all his expected resources were coming to him in the form of bills of exchange. Most of the bills on London drawn in Maryland were drawn on and ultimately made payable to the same small circle of firms—Russell; Molleson; West & Hobson; Hanburys; John Buchanan and Christopher Court, in particular (42). This concentration was exaggerated for Johnson, who had advised his partners in 1771 not to buy Scottish and outport bills. After the crash of June 1772, he again advised his partners not to touch Scottish bills, even though payable in London (41e, 42). This proved bad advice, for all but one major Glasgow firm escaped unscathed, thanks to the liquidity which came from their customary large cash sales to the French. (fn. 25) By contrast, there was a high incidence of failure or serious embarrassment among the London firms. On the morrow of the crash, prudent firms like the Hanburys started protesting all bills of exchange not fully covered by effects on hand. Others soon followed suit (54); even the great James Russell, previously most generous in allowing consigners to draw, was forced into this pattern by his creditors' trustees. Since the same small group upon whom the bills were drawn were also generally the firms to whom the bills were payable, the protests soon put a chill on the whole trade. The London bills received by Johnson, though on the most unexceptionable houses, began registering a high proportion of protests: about a quarter in the year from August 1772, in contrast to June 1772 when every bill was good. With debts falling due and bills being drawn on him by the firm—particularly on the account of William Potts of Barbados for rum, etc. (15a)—the relatively inexperienced Joshua Johnson soon found himself in straitened circumstances.
A bill of exchange drawn in America on London was normally payable at thirty or sixty days 'sight'—thirty or sixty days after presentation to the merchant upon whom it was drawn. If he accepted it, the bill immediately became a negotiable commercial instrument discountable (if good enough) at banks. It could also be used to pay debts directly. (fn. 26) If it was not accepted but merely noted, then the merchant presenting it (the payee) had to hold it for the thirty or sixty days to see if the addressee would pay or not. If the latter still refused, then the payee had to 'protest' the bill before a notary public and send the bill and protest back to America to the firm who had sent him the bill. They had recourse against the person from whom they had purchased the bill and in Maryland were entitled to a 15 per cent penalty for compensation. In most cases the claim of the original bill and penalty were settled by the drawing of a new bill. In the difficult times of 1772-3, this might also in turn be protested.
Johnson was in no immediate danger when the bubble burst in June 1772. Most of the goods he had shipped in June and July 1771 had been paid for in cash or settled in the interim; he had relatively few debts outstanding, due, or about to become due. Most of the spring goods shipped in December 1771 and February 1772, worth £8,300, together with the autumn goods he was shipping in June and July 1772, worth £8,000, had been purchased on twelve months' credit, creating very specific cash-flow problems for him at precisely foreseeable dates in the future. For him, the twelve or thirteen months following the crash of June 1772 were a time of acute agony. He wrote with frantic frequency to his partners, haranguing them about the necessity of good bills and complaining bitterly about the high proportion of protests among those remitted (44, 55b, c, 61-2, 63a, 90). He suggested that relief might be obtained if they and William Lux & Bowly of Baltimore exchanged accommodation bills on London on the illfated Scottish model (39b, 45b). We do not know whether his advice was followed, but his partners were impressed by his straits. They sent him a growing supply of bills of exchange, and even procured a letter of credit signed by Wallace and other persons of property in Maryland, hoping this would induce Osgood Hanbury to take over their London business or make them a large loan (73, 74b, 83a, 86). Though Hanbury refused, Johnson was probably able to borrow some smaller sums—with or without using the letters of credit we do not know (72c, 74a, 88, 99b).
Nevertheless, sums borrowed and bills remitted from the Chesapeake did not pay all his debts outstanding as they came due. At times, Johnson was so desperate—he had before him the horrible example of the imprisonment for debt of his compatriot, John Barnes—that he contemplated giving up and secretly slipping out of London. He did not attempt this, in part from a sense of honour, in part from fear that some suspicious creditor would have him arrested before he could get away (51b, 74a). In the end, he was saved primarily by the considerate, intelligent forbearance of his creditors. In the prolonged depression following June 1772, the big warehousemen and linen-drapers who wished to continue trade had to allow extensions of time to the exporting merchants who owed them money, and to go on supplying goods to exporters who had not yet settled their previous year's purchases. As bad as Johnson thought his own position, he must have appeared in relatively sound shape to those experienced lenders. He was able to arrange with his largest creditors to extend a good part of his twelve-month credits to fifteen or eighteen months, at 5 per cent per annum for the extra time. A few of his smaller creditors dunned him unmercifully, but the larger allowed him to pay off some of these small pests preferentially (80a, 83b, 84a). When one of them, the shoe-dealers Watson & Scott, had him arrested for a small debt, Johnson was out immediately on bail without any real damage to his credit (52b). By August 1773 the worst was over; by the end of the year he could report, 'we are in top credit and . . . it is generally said our payments has been the best by far of any in the trade' (110e).
Most but not all of his suppliers continued to furnish him even in 1772-3. If the Hanburys' connection, the great Quaker linen-merchants, Barclays, would no longer serve him, there was always Nash, Eddowes & Martin ready to oblige (95, 96a, 113). (fn. 27) Less cooperative, the warehousemen Mauduit, Wright & Co., from whom Johnson bought woollens, took Johnson's order for fall goods in June 1773 but refused to put them on board when the ship was ready to sail in July. To get them shipped, Johnson had to agree to have them consigned to Daniel Dulany, a prominent Annapolis lawyer, who was instructed to deliver them to Johnson's partners only after they gave security. Johnson never dealt with Mauduits again (95, 96b, 113).
Although Johnson survived the difficult period June 1772-July 1773 without real damage to his firm's earning power or credit-worthiness, it forced him and his partners to review the nature of their business. They had not sought tobacco consignments, but preferred to employ all their resources in exporting goods to Maryland. By returning cash quickly to London, they would enable Johnson to maximise discounts for cash purchases or early payment as a significant part of their earnings. Turning their capital over quickly, they hoped gradually to raise annual turnover and make it worthwhile to keep Johnson in London. Things went as expected until June 1772 but altered radically thereafter. With a glut of goods in Maryland, they had to reduce orders for their winter and summer shipments of 1773 (Appendix B). With sales slow and good bills hard to find in Maryland, their remittances to London were also slow. Hence Johnson too ran short of cash and had to borrow and extend the duration of his purchase credits, both of which involved paying rather than receiving interest. With the volume of business down in 1773 and the interest account in deficit, the question arose whether the firm would earn enough on their London operations to merit keeping Johnson there. The alternatives were to bring him home or to reconsider their earlier decision not to seek tobacco consignments.
Almost from the start, Johnson had doubted the wisdom of keeping out of the tobacco trade. In November 1771, he informed his partners that they might have made £1,500-£2,000 that year had they accepted tobacco consignments. The business was not any more difficult to manage than shipping goods, provided one got the right sort of tobacco to market early enough. He was particularly interested in the 'coloured' or 'bright' leaf of the Patuxent and Patapsco valleys in Maryland, much in demand in Holland and easily sold for cash (e.g. 14, 93b, 104, 117b, 125c, 129). Johnson understandably kept his partners and their friends informed about tobacco prices in London.
Wallace and Davidson, on their side, were considering ways in which the firm might branch out. Early in 1772 they decided to contract for the building of a ship on the firm's account, intending to send it with tobacco (preferably freighted by others) to London, where both ship and cargo would be sold. Earnings from the freight and the profit expected on the sale of the ship (£500-£600 before the June crisis) made this a remunerative way to remit money to London provided the London shipping market remained firm (39b, 41d). Inevitably, immediately after the panic of 1772, ship sale prices were not as attractive as they had been a few months before or were to become later (47d). By early 1773, however, Johnson was again optimistic about shipbuilding (67).
With his firm already attracted towards speculations in shipbuilding, the panic brought opportunities as well as dangers. With so many tobacco houses breaking, and still others compromised in the eyes of potential consigners because they were known to have called in their creditors, all was in confusion and a splendid opportunity presented itself for new firms to enter the trade. In the first weeks of the crisis, Johnson wrote to his partners that if many Scots firms failed 'and you have spirit to borrow and confidence in me, there must be an opening for us to push in the tobacco [consignment] trade, especially as all [tobacco] purchase [for export] will be at an end with you'. The difficulty of obtaining good bills in Maryland now made tobacco shipments a more attractive form of remittance (42).
At first the partners were held back by the unattractive ratios between tobacco prices in Maryland and London in the months following the June crash (47c). Even those receiving consignments sometimes had to buy in the country in order to fill their ships expeditiously (52c). However, as the gap between these prices widened in 1773, the firm's interest quickened. They knew that, as prices in Maryland declined, planters who had recently been 'selling in the country' would become interested in shipping to London on consignment (53b). Given their local standing, the temptation to venture was great.
The partners were reluctant to enter the consignment trade in a petty way; economical shipping required chartering whole vessels; dabbling would attract the suspicion of the trade without earning much. Nevertheless, their first venture in tobacco came somewhat unwillingly. In the slack period following the panic, Wallace and Davidson bartered part of their Annapolis surplus of goods for tobacco. When they could not resell the leaf advantageously, they chartered space on a new ship built by the Annapolis merchants, Galloway & Steward, and consigned 104 hogsheads to Johnson early in 1773 (63c, 67, 75b). (fn. 28) Although the quality was poor and the sale necessarily disappointing, Johnson after much hesitation was finally convinced by March 1773 that they should go into tobacco on a large scale.
To his partners, Johnson explained that accepting consignments would mean taking cash out of their general merchandise business and tying it up in payment of freight (due within sixty days of a ship's arrival) and in deposits on customs duties. Yet in the end they would make more on the commissions of 1,000 hogsheads consigned (about three shiploads) than on £8,000 worth of goods sent to Annapolis—and with less risk (70b). He envisaged reducing their merchandise business to only about £5,000 a year; using the resources so freed to procure two ships and making about £3,000 available to the London branch for use in paying freight, duties, and other charges on about 1,000 hogsheads. When his partners appeared 'fearful our capital is too inconsiderable to enter the consignment business', he reminded them that 'very few of the gentlemen in the trade began with more money than we had . . .'. Later in the year, Johnson urged his partners to get him 2,000 hogsheads yearly, reminding them that the commission came close to £1 a hogshead and that £2,000 was far more than they had been making. (fn. 29)
Johnson wanted consignments only from planters and sought no dealings with provincial merchants, who expected 'cargoes' from London on credit (72b, 98b, 106a). Even so his partners made arrangements with the local merchants, Archibald Buchanan of Baltimore and Richard Tilghman Earle of the Eastern Shore, which Johnson found distasteful but honoured (59a, 118b, 120, 125a). Nor did he want consignments from big planters, who expected to draw bills of exchange against their consignments, but the little 'two, three and four hogshead correspondents in preference to any others. Their moneys are generally sunk in goods on which we have 12 months' credit and of course [for] that or more time, the use of their money . . .' (72b, 74a). However, as his hunger for consignments grew, Johnson asked his partners to let some consigners draw up to £5 per hogshead, if necessary to get their consignments (103-4). In Maryland, to attract them, Charles Wallace promised the full value of discounts for early payment if the planters left money in Johnson's hands with which to buy goods, and full value of any bounties or drawbacks paid by customs on goods ordered. This annoyed Johnson, not least because of the bookkeeping complexities (107, 109b, 110b).
The key to the success of Wallace, Davidson & Johnson in the consignment trade lay, of course, in their ability to attract the confidence of planters in Maryland. To help in this, Johnson wrote to friends in Baltimore and elsewhere, but he counted most on his partners (particularly Wallace) and their friends travelling through the best tobacco districts, visiting public warehouses and talking to planters. He approved their projected branch store at Nottingham on the Patuxent, while preferring stores further up the river at Pig Point (Anne Arundel County) or Queen Anne (Prince George's County); he was even more anxious to reach the planters in his paternal Calvert County (across from Nottingham) and on Patapsco (particularly Elk Ridge), where Russell's influence had formerly been paramount (103-4, 109b, 117b, 125b-d). He wanted nothing to do with the inferior Potomac tobaccos from St Mary's and Charles Counties, but did not mind receiving the less expensive Eastern Shore tobacco, uniform in quality and easy to sell (110b, c).
The alteration of the London branch from buying agency to tobacco consignment house raised the whole question of the scale and costs of the London presence. Johnson and his wife in later life were reputed extravagant and socially ambitious, but he started in London with the most frugal intentions. He had heard that one could live there for 18d. a day (£25 a year), but soon wrote that life was much dearer; he needed a complete new wardrobe and found that laundry alone would cost him £18-£20 a year (3b). Shortly after his arrival, he rented for £25 a year two rooms at no. 126 Fenchurch Street, intending to use the main room as an office and the 'closet' as bedroom. This was the least he could do, he wrote, 'to support me at least in the character of a gentleman and a partner to a house that will export £10 or 12 thousand per annum'. He soon found it not quite adequate. During the shipping season, his front room was so cluttered with packages and bales that he was embarrassed to find space where a caller might sit (6d). He also entertained, received mail, and conducted business at the Virginia Coffee House, for which he paid an annual guinea 'subscription' to the proprietress, Mrs Powell. (fn. 30)
I found that in the manner I lived would not answer. It looked so . . . mean . . . . I therefore resolved to take a counting house which has made me of the consequence a merchant merits. . . . It has stripped me of the appearance of a transient person.
He also explained that living in the City 'has not been without its good effects with the staid cits', when compared with other of his 'countrymen . . . running to the other end of the town to lodge . . .' (15b). (fn. 31) Alas, even these arrangements proved too modest once the firm decided to enter the consignment business, with its obligation to entertain visiting planters and ship-captains. In the summer of 1773 he moved to an apparently larger, unfurnished house at no. 1 Swan Street, Minories, where he probably got more space for his money than in Tower Street. He did not explain this move at the time to his partners; it may also have had something to do with his intended and rather mysterious marriage to Catherine Nuth. Some months later, though, he advised his partners that expenses must rise considerably with the New Year:
I must have a dwelling house, counting house and sample house besides proper assistance, all of which will come to a good deal of money; and it is the more requisite to have a house of my own that I may be enabled to entertain (when convenient) our countrymen that comes here. You know the advantages arising from it and, in that case, you will consider the furniture will cost me no small trifle (110d). (fn. 32)
Johnson paid for the furniture himself and never charged the firm more than the £30 for house rent provided for in the 1771 partnership contract (151b-d) but quarrels over entertainment expenses continued.
As Johnson's accommodation expanded, so did his staff. He originally expected to be able to do without clerical help, having nothing to keep him busy except purchases and almost no one to write to except his partners. Almost at once, he found extremely time-consuming the business of making clearances at the Customs House. He tried a broker for such business, but a year later said he could save brokerage fees by employing at £10 per annum a boy living with his own parents. The only other help he then used was a temporary clerk to copy invoices and the like during the shipping season. However, once the consignment business started at the end of 1773, he found it necessary to add a regular clerk at £40 a year and a bookkeeper at a higher figure (2b, 6d, 45b, 103, 151c).
Although Johnson once boasted that he could sell tobacco better than any London merchant, having been raised on a plantation, (fn. 33) he found, when his consignment business became busy in 1774, that for large transactions he had to use brokers, at a fee of two shillings per hogshead. Among them was the prominent Jewish broker, Jacob-Israel Brandon, useful in big sales to Dutch and German export houses and uncle of Abraham Lopez Fernandes, one of the very few Anglo-Jewish merchants trading to Virginia and Maryland before the Revolution. When Fernandes went out to Maryland in 1774 to collect some debts, Johnson introduced him to his partners and his brother Thomas, the lawyer and legislator: 'they [the Brandons] are the greatest tobacco brokers in England . . . I could wish that you would make much of him . . . it may sometimes be a farthing per lb. advance to us' (131b). (fn. 34)
For his insurance in 1774-5, Johnson used the brokers Theophilus Williams and J. Le Tillier. (fn. 35) In 1771-3, he had only had to worry about a little insurance on the goods shipped for Maryland. This could be arranged more easily at Lloyds than at one of the chartered companies—the underwriters at Lloyds asked fewer questions (6c). In addition, he soon had some small commissions insuring shipments from Maryland to the West Indies and North Carolina and some bigger wheat shipments of Lux & Bowly from Baltimore to Cadiz. (fn. 36) With the turn to tobacco, insurance work became much more complex: hence the need for brokers. It was necessary to insure each consignment of one, two, or three hogsheads separately; he needed full information well in advance of the names of the shippers and the number of hogsheads each was sending. Speed was important if insurance was to be made in time. Johnson frequently used the fast but expensive Falmouth-New York packet mail service, while his more parsimonious partners preferred entrusting letters to ship-captains bound for London. Johnson warned them frequently that, since their normal method could be up to three weeks slower, they should put all letters containing insurance instructions or bills of exchange into the New York packet; and when they did entrust an important letter to a captain, they should instruct him to put it into the post as soon as he arrived in England, and not wait to deliver it personally (110a, c). His partners ignored his advice, with expensive consequences in one case. A captain to whom a letter had been entrusted waited nine days after arrival to deliver it to Johnson. Finding that it contained instructions to insure a vessel with consigned tobacco, Johnson went to Lloyds that same day only to find that within the hour word had been received at the Tontine Bell of the loss of the vessel on the Isle of Wight. Johnson felt that the delay in making insurance was the firm's fault and that his partners should compensate all consigners, even though a large sum was involved (122a, b, 124b). His advice appears to have been taken, though there was a bitter dispute over whether Johnson should pay his one-third share of the costs of his partners' mistake (125d, 151b).
In general, Johnson seems to have been a more systematic correspondent than his partners and to have had more of the modern sense that time is money. He utilised every available line of communication, including the New York packet and ships to Philadelphia and Virginia as well as vessels going directly to Maryland. He regularly sent duplicates of all letters and important documents by alternative carriers and systematically acknowledged the receipt of each of his partners' letters. They by contrast were more casual, writing less frequently, forgetting about duplicates and the specific dates of letters received. Time too was not fully calculable in the eighteenth century. A ship might take three weeks or three months between London and Maryland, though something just under two months seems to have been normal. A long stretch of strong easterly winds could keep outbound vessels bottled up in the Thames while homebound vessels lingered at Falmouth unable to proceed up the Channel. Stiff westerlies trapped other vessels at the Downs off the eastern tip of Kent and prevented them from proceeding either up the Thames or into the Channel. The weather vanes on London churches were part of the commercial apparatus of the port and were watched attentively by Joshua Johnson and other merchants with ships at sea.
In December 1773, Johnson received his first full shipload of consigned tobacco, on his own firm's new ship, the Kitty & Nelly. Although it was intended that he should sell the vessel along with its cargo, the trade was then looking up and he decided to spend £500 refitting her for Maryland. Against this, he saved almost £300 for freight (at 2½ per cent of value) on the March shipment of spring goods to Annapolis. He also reduced costs by having her take in indentured servants at Gravesend, though he had doubts about the economics of this trade.
The Kitty & Nelly proved to be the beginning of a very busy two years for Johnson as a tobacco merchant in London. Although his correspondence with his partners has not survived after August 1774, we can reconstruct his tobacco business from his ledgers, journals and invoice and sales books. Between December 1773 and November 1775, Johnson received eighteen shipments of tobacco, ranging from four hogsheads on Captain Thomas Eden's Annapolis to 545 hogsheads on his own firm's Kitty & Nelly, a total of 4,283 hogsheads—slightly more than the 2,000 hogsheads a year which he told his partners he could handle. (In 1775, he was the seventh largest tobacco importer in London.) Most of his leaf came from Patuxent (2,794 hogsheads) and Patapsco (1,217) rivers, as he preferred; relatively little from Potomac (125) or the Eastern Shore (52 from Chester River, 95 from Wye). (fn. 37) All but one of the first 104 hogsheads sent as an experiment early in 1773 were sold for export, 92 hogsheads to Hamburg. When his consignment business started at the end of 1773, this sales pattern continued. He received little of the cheap, brown and mild tobacco of Potomac and Eastern Shore suitable for the French market. (fn. 38) The strong, bright yellow leaf from Patuxent and Patapsco was in demand primarily in Holland, German and the Baltic which together took 88 per cent of Johnson's sales during 1774-6. (fn. 39)
This heavy dependence on the Dutch and German markets made Johnson equally dependent on a small circle of London merchants who bought for them. Many were of Dutch and German origin and most probably bought on commission for Dutch and German principals. Six firms, taking over 200 hogsheads each, all for export, accounted for approximately three-quarters of his sales in 1774-6. His eight leading customers (over 100 hogsheads each) were:
|William Davidson, Esq & Co.||951 hhd.|
|Samuel Coldberg (or Coleberg)||816|
|Sir Robert Herries & Co.||426|
|Langkopf, Molling & Rasch||310|
|Hananel Mendes da Costa||291|
|Sutton & Schombart||146|
|Andrew Grote, Son & Co.||133|
We know relatively little about most of these. Herries was the French buying agent, a great merchant and banker in his own right. (fn. 40) Langkopf, Molling & Rasch (originally Furstenau, Schroeder & Co.) and Grotes (originally Kruger & Grote) were long-established German firms in London, going back at least to the 1740s. Davidson and Littledale were British merchants at Rotterdam, active in the London market only with the speculative atmosphere of 1775-6 and the onset of the American Revolution.
Johnson's sales books reveal certain patterns touching tender points of commercial ethics. If we compare the prices of sales shown in his 'tobacco' or 'invoice books' with the 'accounts of sales' returned to planters and other consigners, we find that they do not always agree. These discrepancies arose in part from the necessity of making bulk sales (of twenty to a hundred hogsheads at a time) at flat prices to big buyers, even though one received one's tobacco in small consignments (usually of only two to six hogsheads each). The small consigner, of course, expected each hogshead to be sold according to its quality. What Johnson (and presumably other consignment merchants in London) actually did was to sell at the 'round price' when necessary and then grade the tobacco and 'regulate the prices according to the quality' (107). They may have used a specialist broker for this purpose. Thus, Johnson sold a lot of tobacco on 7 April 1774 to Samuel Coldberg for 2½d. per lb.; but prices anywhere from 1¾d. to 33/8d. were reported to the consigners of these tobaccos. If Benjamin Belt had his one hogshead reported for 2¼d., Mary White Bell had hers reported for 2¾d. All five hogsheads of Archibald Buchanan, the Baltimore merchant and close ally of Johnson's firm, were credited at or below the 2½d. of the sale, while all five hogsheads sent by one Sarah Bateman were credited at 3d. or above. It would appear that a genuine effort was being made to make prices reported reflect quality.
Johnson's London tobacco sales were by trade conventions paid for by a bill or note due in sixty days, or in cash with a 1 per cent discount. In some cases, cash meant simply a book clearance. Johnson sold tobacco to three firms from whom he had earlier bought German linens on twelve months' credit: Sutton & Schombart; Langkopf, Molling & Rasch; and Benjamin Mee, Son & Cassau. The 'cash' tobacco sales thus simply cancelled out the sums owed for linens. (fn. 41) The 'balanced' trades of these German houses in London must have considerably facilitated collections on their linen sales in the difficult times following the crisis of 1772.
Tobacco and a little iron kept Johnson busy during his last years in London, 1774-7. He had also thought of entering the grain trade. The early 1770s saw high and rapidly fluctuating wheat prices; the corn laws were relaxed and foreign cereals admitted into Britain for limited periods free of duty. From his arrival in London, Johnson kept his partners and Baltimore correspondents, particularly Lux & Bowly, informed about grain prices in Britain and southern Europe (13b, 98c, 99a). When Lux & Bowly sent wheat or flour to Ireland, Cadiz, or into the Mediterranean, Johnson handled the insurance and the proceeds were often remitted to him by bills of exchange. When British ports were thrown open, he tried to interest his partners in flour speculations, but, except for one unhappy venture to Ireland, they declined this risky trade. Lux & Bowly and other Baltimoreans, however, sent him wheat, maize and flour in 1775. For them, he provided information on the credit-worthiness of John Thornton (1720-90), the great Russia merchant, grain speculator and Evangelical. (fn. 42)
We know nothing about the profitability of the total business of the firm of Wallace, Davidson & Johnson, because the books of the parent firm in Annapolis have not survived. Down to the end of 1773, when the firm's business was primarily shipping goods from London to Maryland, all significant profits would have been from the sale in Maryland of the goods shipped from London. However, after the tobacco consignment business began in December 1773, the London agency began to have substantial earnings of its own from the commissions received on the sale of tobacco (nearly £1 per hogshead), on purchases of goods for the tobacco consigners, and on insurance and other services performed for correspondents in America. In addition, speculative profits were probably derived from retaining an interest in tobacco sold during the very rapid price rise accompanying the outbreak of the American Revolution. After deducting all expenses, the London branch from these retained earnings accumulated a capital of £3,842 15s. 3d. by 31 July 1775 and £6,052 3s. 2d. by 31 December 1776. (fn. 43) A list of sums owed by and owing to the Annapolis firm as of 10 November 1775 also shows a favourable balance of £11,878 11s. 3d. sterling (converting Maryland currency at par or 1662/3). Even though there is no allowance for bad debts on these accounts, we gain an impression of significant capital growth since the firm started in 1771.
The Johnson 'exhibit' in the Maryland Hall of Records arose from the chancery case, Joshua Johnson v. Charles Wallace and Eleanor Davidson, widow (1799). Such exhibits are now catalogued as 'Private Accounts'. Item 1507 in this class consists of two folio letterbooks kept by Johnson in London; the first (459 pp.) covers the period between 4 June 1771 and 8 August 1774; the second (544 pp.) runs from 15 August 1774 to 9 September 1777. Both are written in clerks' hands. Certain errors in the text (e.g. reincounter for run counter) are characteristic of a less than perfect copyist. The erratic quality of the spelling in the first half of volume one and the very loose punctuation raises the question of whether Johnson might not have dictated some of the letters when his regular office staff consisted only of a ten-pound-a-year errand boy. The spelling improves noticeably when his office staff expanded in 1773. In the present edition, spelling, capitalisation and punctuation have been normalised and obvious clerical errors have been silently corrected. Words added to the text as well as editorial explanations are enclosed in square brackets.
The two letterbooks differ in one important respect: the first appears to include all Johnson's business correspondence; the second omits his letters to his partners jointly (i.e. to the firm). He may have preferred to keep them on loose sheets or in a smaller entry-book. (Examples of such confidential letterbooks have survived.) In this way, he could keep secret from the copy clerks in his counting house sensitive matters touching his business, his marriage or his politics. This makes the second volume much less valuable than the first, for the letters to the partners are the frankest, fullest and most interesting of all.
For this edition we initially selected from volume one all of Johnson's letters to his partners collectively and individually. (fn. 44) A very few were then eliminated as trivial or repetitive, as were some minor passages in the letters retained. (Difficulties in the mails made it necessary for Johnson to repeat many messages in successive letters.) Nevertheless, approximately ninety per cent of the text of the letters to his partners is included here. Also omitted are the salutations and, except for a few samples, the conventional conclusions in which Johnson asked to be remembered to friends and relatives in Maryland. All letters are dated from London unless otherwise indicated. All letters are from Johnson except for one (155) from his clerk H.C.
As the last letter in the first volume concerns the failure of James Anderson and the effect upon the Anderson family, two letters from the second volume concluding the Anderson story are included as Appendix A. These are highly revelatory of the family networks connecting some London mercantile houses and their overseas patrons. One letter (71) in the first volume to James Gibbs, comptroller of Patuxent customs district, is also included. It shows the interest of merchants in customs appointments and explains some obscure passages in other letters in the volume (e.g. 53a).
Appendix B contains a few summary statistical tables which should help clarify the operations of Joshua Johnson. Appendix C contains a Glossary of the principal commercial terms used in the letters. Individuals are identified and other terms clarified in the Index.