Guest Post: Will the Real Paul Cuffe Please Stand Up?

Today’s guest poster, Jeffrey A. Fortin, is an Assistant Professor of History at Emmanuel College, Boston. He is currently finishing up a book on Paul Cuffe, an African-American Quaker and merchant in the early republic.

220px-Paul_Cuffee4Credit cards, electronic banking, online shopping, and a host of other modern forms of commerce did not exist at the turn of the nineteenth century. Merchants throughout the Atlantic relied on reputation and good character when determining a customer’s credit worthiness. Not exactly a foolproof way to do business but seemingly less risky than our fully electronic world of money and banking in twenty-first century America. Yet, identity theft and fraud were still a part of doing business.

Paul Cuffe’s escapades across the northeastern United States sparked murmurs of discontent among merchants, abolitionists, and Quakers. The celebrated Black Sea captain traveled from city to city, amassing debt and capitalizing on the good name that he manicured over the previous several decades as a respected entrepreneur, abolitionist and sober gentleman. It seemed to some witnesses that Paul Cuffe decided to loosen his ethics just a notch later in life, extending large amounts of credit and acting like a man newly acquainted to wealth by spending lavishly and calling out favors owed by friends, and friends of friends. To others, Cuffe’s behavior was perplexing and simply too out of character to believe.

Locals became suspicious when Paul Cuffe arrived in Boston in the fall of 1816 holding letters of credit for nearly $900 worth of goods from prominent New Bedford merchant William Rotch, Jr. One merchant withheld the goods until he could verify the notes of credit with Rotch. He knew Cuffe’s reputation, but such an order without proper forewarning from Rotch seemed odd. With the economic downturn caused by the War of 1812, Boston merchants couldn’t risk sending these goods if William Rotch, Jr. did not want them. When word arrived that Rotch had not authorized Cuffe’s request, the merchant cut ties and demanded an explanation from Cuffe. None was forthcoming.

There was “a great Scoundrel and his name Varied” as he went from city to city, often purporteing to be Paul Cuffe or Paul Cuffe’s son.[1] In a letter to prominent Philadelphia sail maker and dear friend, James Forten, the real Paul Cuffe made it clear the man roaming the northeast taking out letters of credit for $10,000 in New York City and staying free of charge at taverns and inns who were acquainted with Cuffe’s name was a hooligan, a con-man, a thief.[2] He urged his friends to “be very Cautious of Sutch Impoisters.”[3] The real Paul Cuffe’s reputation was being trampled, infuriating the sea captain to a level rarely matched.

The con-man boldly traveled to New Bedford in an attempt to bilk William Rotch, Jr. directly, but the wealthy merchant managed to capture him, enacting a citizen’s arrest of sorts for theft and fraud. Rotch kept him in his office until he could find authorities to jail the impostor, but the man managed to escape, fleeing to New York where he demanded several thousand dollars of credit before suspicious authorities arrested him, compelling him to leave the city in exchange for his freedom. From there he traveled upstate to Albany. Ira Potter, a local merchant and revolutionary war pensioner, took in the man for one month, providing him with food and clothes in exchange for work. When he realized Potter’s resources were limited, the impostor stole Potter’s $200 horse, with the “villin” making his way south into Pennsylvania where he was caught and jailed.[4] The fake Paul Cuffe left a trail of deceit and debt as he skipped from one town to another, eluding long-term confinement.

Cuffe warned his many friends along the east coast of the impostor’s presence with the hope that the con-man would not swindle them. In January of 1817 authorities who caught up to the swindler quickly realized “he has had So many names, that it is hard to Say what his name is.”[5] He was, according to Cuffe, a “Great imposture” who should rot in jail for 1,000 years. Although a bit harsh in his assessment, it is easy to understand how difficult this affair must have been for Cuffe. Word traveled less quickly in 1817, and it would take Cuffe months to sort out the supposed loans and lines of credit opened in his name as tales of the impostor’s misdeeds trickled in via mail at his Westport, MA home. In addition, such fraud challenged Paul Cuffe’s most treasured qualities of being humble, dealing honestly, and living frugally. This great imposter flaunted his disdain for such ideals, soiling Paul Cuffe’s name in the process.

The story of Cuffe’s impostor is compelling for two important reasons. First, Paul Cuffe and his reputation for sobriety and ethics was widely known. People, even if they did not personally know him, trusted anyone who claimed to be a family member or associated with him. This con-man exploited Cuffe’s trusted business and social networks. Second, his celebrity surpassed his ability to mitigate his broader public persona. In an age before PR assistants and firms managing one’s image, Paul Cuffe was at the mercy of this con-man who knew he could capitalize on the aging sea captain’s fame. Cuffe witnessed much debauchery and misdeeds in his day, especially in the colony of Sierra Leone, but as he remained in Westport attempting to reconcile his debts and order his affairs, dealing with the impostor proved exacerbating.

Cuffe held deeper concerns regarding the impostor’s impact, not as concerned for his own affairs as he was for the damage the fraudulent man’s actions would have on the burgeoning African colonization movement. Paul Cuffe understood the success of his vision for Sierra Leone rested largely on his reputation. In 1810, as Quaker leaders around the Atlantic world attempted to convince Cuffe of becoming the black leader of the colony—the man who would demonstrate to the Atlantic’s cautiously optimistic abolitionist community just what a free African man could achieve—references to his solid character, temperance, frugality, and humility solidified the perception that he was indeed the most capable person to rebuild the failing colony. In fifty-eight years of living in America, he understood that African Americans—especially free blacks—were held to a higher standard. White criminals rarely were held up as the example of average behavior for their race; the misdeeds of African Americans often were used to illustrate just how untrustworthy that population could be. “It is a Stain to the whole community of the African race,” he protested. “Let me tell thee,” he continued, “that the manumission of 1,500,000 Slaves depens on the faithfulness of the few who have obtained their freedom.”[6] Throughout his life, Cuffe heaved the weight of the African race upon his shoulders, not content to simply make a good name for himself or his family, but choosing to serve as the example for all persons of color in the Atlantic. He would be the beacon that white men whispered about and judged, possibly swaying their opinions for abolition and colonization.

______________

[1] Paul Cuffe to James Forten, January 23, 1817, in Captain Paul Cuffe’s Logs and Letters, 1808-1817: A Black Quaker’s “Voice from Within the Veil,” ed. Rosalind Cobb Wiggins (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996), 499.

[2] For more on crime and good fellows in urban America, see Timothy J. Gilfoyle. A Pickpockets Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth Century New York (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011).

[3] Cuffe to Forten, January 23, 1817, in Captain Paul Cuffes Logs and Letters, 500.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cuffe to Joseph Jessop, January 26, 1817, in Captain Paul Cuffes Logs and Letters, 500.

[6] Ibid., 501.

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