American Legal History
-- MichaelDignan - 13 Oct 2010


What circumstances led to the passage of the Maryland Tobacco Inspection Act of 1747?

The Maryland Tobacco Inspection Act of 1747 established a series of tobacco regulations that were intended to bring up the price of tobacco, and lasted largely unchanged through the Revolutionary War. This project is an inquiry into the circumstances that led to its passing and the resulting changes that it brought about.

Early Tobacco Regulations

John Rolfe brought tobacco to Virginia in 1612, the first time that tobacco had been grown on a commercial scale in British colonial America, inaugurating an era in which tobacco was the primary crop for Virginia, and later, Maryland. Tobacco was the lifeblood of both colonies' economies deep into the 18th century. While many Englishmen had started growing tobacco in their own gardens by the 17th century for personal use, mostly as snuff, by the end of the second decade, a substantial amount of tobacco began to arrive from the Chesapeake region (see Wyckoff, p 20).

King James I was not particularly enamored of tobacco, having written in his 1604 "Counter Blast to Tobacco" that tobacco use is "[a] custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse." But tobacco's growing popularity in England at the time meant that much of England's coin was being sent to Spain in exchange for it. The king's mercantilist sensibilities overcame his personal aversions, and in 1619 he issued two proclamations concerning tobacco in the kingdom. The first, "Proclamation concerning the Viewing and Distinguishing of Tobacco in England and Ireland, the Dominion of Wales and Towne of Barwicke," was the first tobacco inspection measure in England. It provided for inspection of tobacco upon importation, and gave the importation rights to three individuals, who in return paid the king a modest sum for the privilege. Later in the same year he issued a proclamation "to Restraine the Planting of Tobacco" in England, giving the colonies even more incentive to invest in growing tobacco for sale to England. The rest of the 1620s saw the monopoly for importation shifting between various hands, and a proclamation intended to curb undercutting of the monopoly through the illicit sale of cheaper, foreign tobacco. From the very beginning, the Crown recognized the valuable revenue that the tobacco trade generated through customs and the sale of the monopoly right. Throughout the rest of the first half of the 17th century, the laws reflected the immediate concerns of mercantilist policy makers. Tobacco would first be monopolized by the Crown, then farmed out to private actors. Foreign tobaccos were allowed in small quantities, then excluded. Total tobacco imports were restricted, then any amount was allowed in.

Early regulations in Virginia originated at about the same time. In 1619 an inspection law was passed by the House of Burgesses that provided for burning of any non-vendible tobacco presented for shipping "before the owners face." (see Wyckoff, p 26). Soon afterward, concern that the people of Virginia were too focused on growing tobacco at the expense of self-sufficiency led to the passage of a law that restricted the amount of tobacco that could be grown to 100 plants a person and 9 leaves to a stalk. That law also reflects concerns about the quality and amount of tobacco on the market. London officers had told their Jamestown representatives that the settlers "thinke it lawfull to use all mann-er of deceipt and falsehood in their Tobacco that they put of [in] the Magazine" (see A.B. Hart, American History Told by Contemporaries, in Wyckoff, p 30).

Subsequent laws passed in early Virginia give some insight into the politics and market conditions of the time. Ministers received a sizable cut of the tobacco grown in the colony. One of the early laws forbade the disposal of tobacco by any man, "before the minister be satisfied ... out of the first and best tobacco" (see Wyckoff, p 35). There were also provisions for men in every plantation to "censure" the tobacco. While it is not known exactly what censuring entailed, it is likely that it included cursory inspection of and a count of the plants grown by the farmers. The Virginia planters lobbied on and off to try and prevent the importation of tobacco into England from countries like Spain in order to assure their position as the primary supplier.

Maryland Begins Planting

Maryland, founded in 1634, began planting tobacco within the year. While Virginia planters grew what was was known as sweetleaf, Maryland farmers began planting two related species of tobacco that came to be known as bright-leaf and dull-leaf orinoco. Virginia had quite a headstart on production of tobacco compared to its colonial neighbor. While Virginia's supply of tobacco kept growing throughout the early 17th century, reaching around 1.3 million pounds exported per year from 1637-1640, Maryland was likely only producing around 100,000 pounds a year by this time (see Wyckoff, p 49). But tobacco increasingly became the staple crop of the region, and by the 1640s was being used as a currency. "It was in terms of tobacco that values were set by law on corn in trade with the Indians. Penalties for the violations of court orders and disturbance of the peace, fees for public officers and judges, tax rates, contributions for the erection of a town hall and funds to establish a necessary ferry, —all those sums were payable in tobacco" (see Wyckoff, p 50).

Maryland's first inspection law was passed in 1640 and provided that "No Tobacco shall be exported or attempted to be exported out of the province untill it have been Sealed by a Sworne veiwer upon pain of treble forfeiture" (see Wyckoff, p52). The sworn viewer would check the tobacco to make sure it was fit for export, looking to prevent ground leaves (those that grow closest to the ground and are the coarsest tasting), second crops (or second growths after the tobacco stalk had been trimmed of its first growth leaves; second crops were considered inferior), or bruised, worm-eaten and damaged leaves. A hogshead that was found to be mostly bad was burned on the spot, but if only a portion were bad, then four times that amount, not to exceed the quantity of the cask, was forfeited for burning. The law only remained in effect for two years, before it was allowed to lapse, and Maryland remained without regulation until 1657.

Conditions Leading up to 1747

A number of problems waxed and waned more or less continuously throughout tobacco's 150 year pre-Revolutionary history in Virginia and Maryland. Farmers with small harvests tried to inflate their sales by packing ground leaves, second crops, or otherwise damaged, trash leaf in with their good leaf to fill out in a hogshead. Rich planters tried to restrict the total output of tobacco leaves in order to raise prices. Both tried to avoid paying larger fees by cramming more tobacco into larger barrels, since many fees were on a per hogshead basis. These problems became more serious as the volume of tobacco in the mid-17th century rose rapidly without a legal system of regulation or inspection to ensure quality.

By 1660, Maryland and Virginia law makers decided that they should try to cooperate in order to improve the market for their staple crop, since the price had begun to plummet. In that year tobacco became an enumerated article under British law and hence became subject to serious fees upon landing, although drawbacks recouped some of the losses if the tobacco were reexported from England. The more important problem was the steadily growing supply of tobacco that far outstripped the demand for the crop. By 1664, Maryland and Virginia were exporting 23 million pounds of the crop, and prices were down almost 50% from what they were 30 years ago (see Wyckoff, p 65). Negotiations over which regulations to enforce broke down between the two colonies, however, when conflict between the larger planters who wanted to restrict tobacco output and poorer farmers, who could not afford to restrict output, since they were barely scraping by, even though they included trash to fill in their orders. The formal regulation of tobacco during this period was restricted to prohibitions on ground leaves and seconds, and a prescription for the maximum gauge for the hogsheads. Prices were low, but at least relatively stable, even as production increased. The only times prices rose were when weather destroyed some of the crop, naturally dropping the supply.

By the 1720s, the tobacco trade was essentially experiencing a depression. The low prices and high duties and fees left little money left over to live in for all but the richest tobacco planters. Much of the trouble was due to the debit-credit relationship between the planters and the foreign merchants who received the tobacco and in turn brought European merchandise to the colonies. Jefferson wrote that:

[L]ong experience has proved to us that there never was an instance of a man's getting out of debt who was once in the hands of a tobacco merchant and bound to consign his tobacco to him. It is the most delusive of all snares. The merchant feeds the inclination of his customer to be credited till he gets the burden of debt so increased that he cannot throw it off at once, he then begins to give him less for his tobacco & ends with giving him what he pleases for it, which is always so little that thought he demands of the customer for necessaries be reduced ever so low in order to get himself out of debt, the merchant lowers his price in the same proportion so as always to keep such a balance against his customer as will oblige him to continue his consignments of tobacco (see Wyckoff, p 130).

In 1730, in order to raise the price of tobacco from Virginia, the House of Burgesses passed an inspection law that was to become the model for the Maryland law passed in 1747. Shortly after the 1730 act, the price of Virginia sweetleaf tobacco went up considerably, to more than twice that of the Maryland orinoco tobacco (see Schweitzer, p 556).

The Passage of the Maryland Tobacco Inspection Act of 1747

Needless to say, Marylanders took note of the discrepancy in prices between the Virginia tobacco and the prices they were getting on theirs. The Lower House of the Maryland legislature had been traditionally opposed to inspection laws or stinting laws designed to restrict the amount of tobacco each person could produce, since it represented the interests of the poorer tobacco farmers in the colony. Even as late as 1744, the legislature was unwilling to do anything except reenact measures to penalize crop destruction by malcontents and to prescribe the gauge of tobacco casks. But by 1747 it was willing to give in and cooperate, and there was finally passed "An Act for amending the Staple of Tobacco, for preventing Frauds in his Majesy's Customs, and for the Limitation of Officers Fees." Each part of the act's name was important, and the act itself ushered in a new era of rising prices and higher quality tobacco. There were quite a few important provisions, many of which reflected a compromise between the various competing interests of the clergy, officials, rich planters, and poorer farmers:

  • All tobacco made after December 1, 1747 and exported after December 1, 1748, was to be brought to one of the public warehouses established by the act.
  • Masters of ships were to take an oath not to load uninspected tobacco.
  • No bulk tobacco (that tobacco not packed in casks, often sent by poorer farmers who did not have enough tobacco to fill out a hogshead) was to be loaded on any vessel except for movement between places within the colony, for carriage to the warehouses to pay levies, or for packing.
  • No casked tobacco was to be landed or to be taken from the cask before inspection except in cases of emergency made necessary by weather or damage through mishandling.
  • Inspectors were to give bond and to take an oath.
  • Time was given for attendance of inspectors at warehouses and their duties were to break open every hogshead, inspect tobacco, weigh and repack it branding cask with name of warehouse, tare and net amount of leaf. If two inspectors disagreed, a third was to be called.
  • For all tobacco brought to a warehouse for payment of debt, public or private, the inspectors were to give promissory notes for the approved leaf, which notes were to be "current" for all tobacco payments in that county, shall be transferable and redeemable. After a set date all tobacco debts to be payable only in notes. Establishment of allowances and inspection fees.
  • Dimensions of hogsheads were 48 inches in stave and 70 inches in diameter, maximum.
  • Punishment was prescribed for forging or counterfeiting notes.
  • Replacement was provided of notes lost or destroyed.
  • All public and county levies, parochial charges, officers' and lawyers' fees not payable in money according to the paper currency act were to be paid by inspectors' notes to the sheriff. Clergy's fees were reduced by 25%; officers and official attorneys had their fees reduced by 10%, and there was a deduction of 20% in all new county levies.
  • Tobacco refused by the inspectors was to be burned or repicked by the owner; overseers were to make good all burnt tobacco of their original packing.
  • Inspectors were to be chosen by the governor from a list of nominees presented by the clergy in every parish.
  • Provisions were made for the construction of warehouses for inspection.
  • Penalties were stated for clandestine exportation of bad and bulk tobacco.
  • No creditor could force a debtor to give bond for payment of a tobacco debt in money in order to avoid the deduction allowed by the law after time for for enforcement. Furthermore, all debtors, their executors and administrators, paying tobacco debts currently due in the inspected tobacco were to be allowed a deduction of 25% of the said debt.
  • To encourage the growing of flax, hemp, and other crops, it was lawful for those not raising tobacco to pay their debts, private and public, in the current money of the province at a legislated price per weight of tobacco.
(see Wyckoff, pp 175-177).

Shortly after the law was passed, the gap in price between the Maryland and Virginia tobacco closed, so that tobacco merchants in England, Scotland, and France no longer complained about the poor quality of the Maryland product. It seems likely, however, that the law had a disproportionate impact on growers. Rich planters prospered thanks to the price increases. Growers at the lower margin, however, who were barely scraping by to begin with, were no longer able to sell bulk leaf or to mix in trash with their good leaf in order to boost returns. The pressure to create a better crop in order to stay afloat, along with the difficulty in growing on soil that was becoming increasingly exhausted, helped contribute to the diversification of Maryland's agricultural products. The warehouse system of inspection helped to lower transaction costs, and the creation of inspection notes served to standardize tobacco as a commodity of exchange (see Schweitzer, p 566). While much of the resurgence of the tobacco market in the Chesapeake can be credited to the 1730 and 1747 laws in the colonies, the opening up of new European markets, especially the French market after the depression during Queen Anne's War, may have played a significant role (see Price).

The passage of the 1747 act raised tobacco revenue for the colony as a whole, while simultaneously forcing farmers near the margins to diversify. The quantity of tobacco being exported continued to rise throughout the 18th century, but prices remained high, largely helped by the regulatory scheme that continued mostly intact until the Revolution.

Sources and Further Reading

Economic Regulation and the Colonial Economy: The Maryland Tobacco Inspection Act of 1747
Mary McKinney Schweitzer
The Journal of Economic History
Vol. 40, No. 3 (Sep., 1980), pp. 551-569
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Economic History Association 


King James I of England, "A Counterblaste to Tobacco"


This should be presented as a condensation of material available in Wyckoff and your other sources. It's effective and useful for that purpose. It doesn't break new ground, and while it doesn't pretend to, it would be more useful if it were presented as an online introduction to the monograph itself, for which it would then serve as a useful model for future introducers of other monographs. That allows the reader to understand that the practical task is judging the reliability of the monograph, which you have not actually undertaken to determine for yourself.


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Attachments Attachments

  Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
pdf Jacob_Price.pdf props, move 469.0 K 14 Oct 2010 - 16:07 MichaelDignan Price, Jacob M. "The economic growth of the Chesapeake and the European Market" from Tobacco in Atlantic Trade (Norfolk, 1995).
png Proclamation_concerning_the_viewing_and_distinguishign_of_tobacco_in_England_and_Ireland.PNG props, move 518.5 K 14 Oct 2010 - 16:26 MichaelDignan Proclamation concerning the viewing and distinguishing of tobacco in England and Ireland
png Proclamation_for_putting_in_execution_the_laws_and_statutes_of_this_realm.PNG props, move 1398.2 K 14 Oct 2010 - 16:08 MichaelDignan Proclamation for putting in execution the laws and statutes
pdf Tobacco_Regulations_in_Colonial_Maryland.pdf props, move 5003.4 K 14 Oct 2010 - 16:04 MichaelDignan Wyckoff, Vertrees J. Tobacco Regulation in Colonial Maryland (Baltimore, 1936).
pdf sotweed.pdf props, move 86.2 K 14 Oct 2010 - 16:01 MichaelDignan "The Sot-Weed Factor" by Ebenezer Cook
r4 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:17:11 - IanSullivan
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