Merchant Prince of Boston. Colonel T. H. Perkins, 1764-1854

Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson
Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

    This is a major biography of an important figure in Massachusetts history, even national history.  Thomas Handasyd Perkins  (THP) was born 15 Dec. 1764, in revolutionary Boston, to the merchant family of James Perkins and Elizabeth Peck. There is a great, detailed description of the turmoil and tawdry history of the "Boston Massacre" of 1770. His father and grandfather were involved in Boston politics as well as in their families and businesses. Elizabeth and the children evacuated to Barnstable during the British blockade of Boston. Then, in 1773, James Perkins died, leaving  a large family and a modest estate of £350, including  a Negro woman. Elizabeth Perkins continued the family shop, eventually becoming wealthy.

    Thomas joined his elder brother James in Cape Francis, Santo Domingo (now Cap Haitien, Haiti) in 1783. They shuttled back and forth between there and American ports, and set up a commission business in Santo Domingo, in which slaves were a major commodity, along with dried fish (slave food), flour and horses. Thomas married Sarah Elliot in Boston in 1788 and set up shop there for a time. When the China trade opened in 1789, Thomas went as  supercargo of the Astrea on a slow and unhealthy trip from Boston to Canton via Batavia. The trip was not particularly successful, but while he was at Canton,  the British Iphegenia and American Columbia arrived with sea otter skins from the northwest coast of America, which were smuggled in and sold for up to $70 each.  Back in Boston, Perkins hastily organized (with other investors) his own expeditions to the northwest, but didn't go himself. The tiny Hope went out in 1790,  then the Margaret in 1791. Meanwhile, in Santo Domingo, the slaves had revolted, Cape Francis was under seige, and James Perkins returned to Boston in 1792. Sam Perkins, their youngest brother, stayed until the final overrunning of Cape Francis in 1793. Massachusetts had outlawed slave-dealing, but couldn't do anything  about the activities of its citizens overseas. The Hope expedition failed*, with dirty dealing in China, but the Margaret was a great success in 1794.
    Meanwhile, the Perkins brother were selling food in revolutionary France to a seller's market. The problem was getting paid, and getting the payment home, so Thomas and James often travelled with their shipments, to be on-the-spot. When THP was in Paris, he dined with (US ambassador) James Monroe and other prominent citizens. He found Tom Paine to be slovenly, a drunk - pleasant and knowlegable until it came to politics, then an opinionated loon. Monroe put him in touch with Madame Lafayette, who needed her son, George Washington Lafayette, smuggled to America. Monroe issued him a passport under an obscure family name, and Perkins spirited him to Boston. Perkins was present for some of the last guillotine executions of the Revolution, including that of  Robespierre's prosecuting attorney Fouquier-Tinville, and associates, in 1795. He eventually made 10 trips to Europe. Perkins ships went to Africa, Europe, Russia, the West Indies; they continued fur trading with China, and set up a permanent office in Canton. Business was usually in partnership with other  merchants and ship owners - it seems to have involved an incestuous kaleidoscope of relatives and investors over the decades. James mostly took care of the books, and Tom had the active role in hiring sailors, arranging for supplies, overseeing the ships and cargoes.

   Socially, the Perkins's were not Puritans. They were among the investors in Boston's controversial first legal theater, in 1793. (John Adams was another.)  Thomas became civicly active and increasingly political. He commanded a fire-fighting brigade. He was a Federalist vote distributor, in those days before secret ballots. The "colonel" title was from his command of the Independent Corps of Cadets, a showy militia (this militia is not defined well in the book, nor is its relation to the state clear.) He served in 1805 and 1813-1817 as state senator and in 1806-1807 as state representative as a strongly partisan Federalist, probably being part of the secessionist wing of the party. (That movement, powerful in the run-up to the War of 1812, was later considered treasonous. John Quincy Adams lost his presidential re-election bid partly because he wouldn't deny that many prominent Massachusetts Federalists were involved.) Perkins ships paid for safe passage from all sides in the Napoleonic wars and War of 1812, but had some ships seized anyway. Bribery, smuggling and hard-ball politics were standard at all locations.

    Other ventures: The Perkins's were the major investors in a short-lived iron smelter and foundry at Vergennes, Vermont, from 1807, through the War of 1812, until 1816. It was largely a sad amateur show - they never had  experts on hand to get it running - some of their furnace plans were based only on textbook diagrams. The Perkins's also invested in Boston area development schemes and real estate - bridges and toll roads in the 1810s,  hotels in Boston. Much later they were investors in the Lowell, Newton and Holyoke mills, and railroads and canals and coal mines. Many plans failed: a lead mine in Northampton, a resort hotel at Nahant, the Back Bay tide-mill, but they were diversified, smart and lucky enough to generally pick winners. Civic investments included very large contributions to and involvement in the planning of what are now the Boston Athenæum, McLean Hospital, Mass. General Hospital, and the Museum of  Fine Arts. And the donation of THP's Boston mansion to the Mass. Asylum for the Blind, which soon after renamed itself the Perkins School for the Blind.

    The Perkins' Jacob Jones captured 2 British merchant ships while on its way to China in 1814. The prizes both carried opium, and this changed the Perkins business model dramatically when they realized the profits involved. It had been legal until 1800, and other Americans had begun trading opium to China as early as 1809-1810, but the vast majority of it was brought in by the East India Company.  "The fact that they were entering a trade forbidden by China was known to all the merchants involved. Nor was the fact that many considered it immoral to use opium any deterrent to the traders. They cheerfully rationalized that the opium habit was not  nearly so debilitating as the habit of drink."  Perkins bought its opium in Turkey, and tried to gain a monopoly there, apparently supplying about 4% of  China's use in the 1820s. THP declined to aid the Greek battle for independence from the Ottomans, even though it was a popular Boston cause, for fear it would complicate his situation in Turkey. Fur trading came to an end in the 1820s. THP's active involvement in the China trade seems to have ended about 1830, but he remained an investor in successor companies.

    THP was an initial investor in the project to build the Bunker Hill Monument, eventually becoming a major supplier for the project as well (in an era before conflict-of-interest was considered a crime.) The story of  its construction is long, complicated and sordid, but it led to the first American railroad - a gravity powered system to move granite from the hills of Qunicy  to waiting ships.

    THP  "knew most of the American artists of the day, enjoyed a friendship with many of them, and what is infinitely more important to the artist, often bought their paintings."  He entertained Audubon a number of times, and bought 2 sets of his famous books. Gilbert Stuart painted portraits of  Thomas, James, and Sarah Perkins. THP was hosted by George Washington, and was on social terms with several other US presidents (NOT Thomas Jefferson), and Lafayette, and Daniel Webster.

    Comments - as always, I want maps. There are none here, and they would have been particularly useful to understand the events in and around Boston.  Overall, I had no clear idea where, when and how money was being made and shifted - this seems like a major criticism of  a biography of a master merchant. The dates are often unclear too - as I came to write this, it was a big problem, flipping back and forth through the book to find just when something occurred. I knew nothing about the Haitian war for independence - it looks complicated and brutal. On the web, THP is among the many Boston Brahmins woven into the bizarre conspiracy tapestry of the Lyndon Larouche cult. I looked into THP because a newspaper piece said that the town of Perkins, Maine was named for him, because he had paid for the legal work needed to split it from Dresden. However, that newspaper was wrong: the town was actually named for his son, also named Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1796-1850), who married Jane Frances Rebecca Dumaresq (1799-1856), who was born there. The town of Perkins (1847-1918) was Swan Island, in the Kennebec river between Richmond and Dresden. It is now a state nature preserve.

Feb 2004 - David Kew
* Thomas Ingraham commanded the Hope. His report on discovering several islands in the Marquesas was published in the 1793 Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and his travels and fur-trading are in the histories.