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Response to Review no. 740

I would like to thank Professor Simon Middleton for his kind words and the thoughtful review of Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York. Before I comment on the review, I ought to mention that I did, in fact, include Cathy Matson’s Merchants and Empire in the notes to Defying Empire.

Professor Middleton is correct to suggest that in Defying Empire I and my publisher set out to tell a story and stay close to the action. But the narrative rests on a rock-solid archival foundation. The introduction and conclusion provide a contextual framework for the story and discuss ways in which participants and public officials on both sides of the Atlantic interpreted British North America’s trade with the French enemy – and its consequences. That said, I want readers to decide for themselves who (if anyone) was on the side of the angels.

‘All participants in the narrative text are similarly driven by personal interests and ambitions’, writes Professor Middleton. Money is the great motivator in this story. Trading with the enemy in colonial New York City fitted into the flow of commerce and took advantage of extraordinary opportunities created by the destruction of the French Atlantic carrying trade early in the war. Because the risks were great (as were the returns), it was not a game for the faint of heart. However, that does not mean that participants intended to challenge the constitutional arrangements that held the empire together or undermine the security of the state or even prolong the war. It was about the money!

I was surprised that Professor Middleton ended his review with a suggestion that I have no interest ‘in the deeper meaning of merchant commercial strategies and imperial loyalties’. Au contraire! Defying Empire lays bare contradictions and ambiguities in the Anglo-American relationship that could not be brushed aside after the Seven Years’ War. The book offers a detailed account of Atlantic merchants struggling to survive in strained wartime circumstances and looks closely at what happened when their ‘commercial strategies and imperial loyalties’ finally collided.

Atlantic commerce and its role in the imperial connection is, in my view, central to the story of the American Revolution. It is a topic I will be taking up in my next book, The Overseas Trade of British America, 1607-1775.