Typically, the American Revolution’s intensity and bitterness led to an indelible personal choice; either support the Rebels or the Loyalists. During or immediately after the war, Loyalists had their property confiscated and forcibly exiled to England or another colony. It was almost impossible for those that assisted the British Crown during the conflict to remain in the new United States. However, Tench Coxe is a unique exception. While relatively unknown today, Coxe’s led a politically and intellectually interesting life accomplishing more for the new republic than most ardent supporters of independence.
Born into a wealthy family, the twenty-year-old aspiring merchant set up a new business in Philadelphia. Through family connections and a strong wartime boom, Coxe immediately enjoyed financial success. Further, as a family scion, Philadelphia society welcomed him into its highest ranks. However, when the British arrived in 1778, Coxe faced a choice. While other merchants fled the city, Coxe remained to welcome the British. During the British occupation, he actively traded with the enemy and supported the restoration of British rule.
When the British abandoned Philadephia, Coxe had a decision to make. He could leave with the British Army, or he could stay. Coxe chose the latter. This decision subjected Coxe to being named a traitor by the new Pennsylvania government. As a well-known British collaborator, the Rebel government indicted Coxe for his treasonous activities. While others faced certain conviction, Coxe escaped without any censure or property confiscation. Coxe had well-connected friends who vouched for his actions as “youthful indiscretions,” including Thomas McKean, Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice, and the famous patriot doctor/politician Benjamin Rush. While barely escaping immediate prosecution, Coxe’s Toryism would dog him for the rest of his life.
Despite the obvious implications of a Tory past, Coxe quit his lucrative merchant business for politics. He strongly supported many of Alexander Hamilton’s economic politics, and George Washington appointed him Assistant Secretary of Treasury. In this role, he collaborated with Hamilton to write several notable essays on American Manufactury and its impact on the new country’s economy. The Hamiltonian partnership would not last. The two Treasury officials had a bitter, public falling out. Coxe’s dissatisfaction increased to a level that he changed his political allegiance from Federalist to Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican (Republican). This change got him fired from his Treasury post. However, now he had full time to devote to politicking.
Coxe turned his energy to building the small Pennsylvania Republican Party. Ardently, he wrote hundreds of pamphlets, newspaper articles, and speeches advocating the Republican platform. He became one of the most influential politicians in the state, but again, his Tory background precluded an elected position. Helping to garner Pennsylvania’s support for Jefferson in the election of 1800, Coxe expected a Federal appointment after Jefferson’s successful campaign. Despite intensive personal lobbying, Coxe only received an opportunity to fill a minor post, one not required Senate approval. Jefferson concluded that Coxe’s Tory past ruled out a Senate confirmation. Similar to Hamilton, Coxe had a public falling out with Jefferson. Again, Cox could not maintain an allegiance.
While politics would not form his legacy, Coxe is best known for his economic writing. Combining inputs from Hamilton and Jefferson, he advocated a balanced manufacturing, agrarian, and commercial economy. To implement this optimum economy, Coxe vociferously advocated for tariffs to protect a small but growing manufacturing sector. Early on, he recognized the potential of cotton cultivation to drive economic growth. His well-regarded thoughts on growing businesses placed him as one of the most influential economic thinkers of the Early Republic. Perhaps, this is why leaders such as Jefferson and Madison continued to correspond with Coxe despite being continually badgered for a public appointment.
While pursuing a public career, Coxe hoped that land speculation would fund his political ambitions and provide a high living standard for his ten child family. He purchased hundreds of thousands of acres in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. These low-value but extensive properties overextended his financial means leading to considerable financial distress. On several occasions, impending insolvency led him to seek funds from his father and brothers to stay out of debtor prison. While stressing his meager means, he did sell his North Carolina properties near the end of his life for a handsome profit and passed on his other properties to his six surviving children.
Another Coxe legacy is his views on slavery and race. Outspoken, early in his political career, he advocated for the abolition of slavery. For Coxe, there was no middle ground; slavery was an absolute injustice that had to be outlawed. At the same time, he did not believe in racial equality. Coxe thought that African Americans were inherently inferior and conceived that the best course of action was to send them back to Africa. After realizing that expelling Blacks was not possible, his views became muddled. For example, he criticized New Englanders for their hypocrisy of advocating the end of slavery but not wanting free Blacks to live within their communities. However, his writing also reveals that he also did not want to live in a racially integrated society. Coxe’s views illustrate the prevailing moral problems of anti-slavery proponents, who also espoused racial bigotry.
During a long, fulsome life, Coxe demonstrated that his loyalties did reside with the United States, and he faithfully served the new government. Uniquely for a British collaborator, Pennsylvanians did send him to represent the state in the last Confederation Congress. Contemporaries and economic historians recognized his substantial contributions to political economics. Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe well regarded his theories of economic development and entered into considerable correspondence with Coxe. While presidents welcomed his economic thinking and political support, they were unwilling to support Coxe politically or appoint him to a powerful position. No matter his financial brilliance or political acumen, Coxe could not overcome his youthful dalliance with British Loyalism. If Coxe had fled Philadelphia upon its British capture, perhaps he would enjoy the prominence of an influential founder.
To learn more about this complex character, read this authoritative account of Tench Coxe’s life.
Cooke, Jacob Ernest. Tench Coxe and the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1978.