AINSLIE, THOMAS, businessman, office holder, and militia officer; b. 8 Feb. 1729 in Jedburgh parish, Scotland, son of Gilbert Ainslie and Christian Rutherford; m. first 26 March 1762 Mary Potts in Jedburgh, and they had two sons and two daughters; m. secondly 2 April 1772 Elizabeth Martin in Hampton, N.H., with whom he had five sons and three daughters; m. thirdly Elizabeth Williamson in Edinburgh, Scotland, and there were no children; d. 7 April 1806 at his farm, Wells (Over Wells), near Jedburgh, and was buried in Jedburgh Abbey.
Following the early death of their father, Thomas Ainslie and his two brothers were raised by their mother and an uncle, John Ainslie. In 1748 Thomas came to North America and appears to have entered the mercantile trade, possibly at Boston, Mass. By 1757 he had settled at Halifax, N.S., where he achieved some prominence. He secured in 1759 a portion of the supply trade at Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island. Anticipating further gain through the advancement of his friend Colonel James Murray*, he went to Quebec after the capture of that city. Between June 1760 and September 1762 Ainslie served, on Murray’s appointment, as administrator of the king’s posts, the government-controlled fur-trading posts on the lower St Lawrence, where he also had a temporary monopoly of the trade. In London in the spring of 1762, he reported for Murray to Lord Egremont, secretary of state for the Southern Department, on the general situation in Canada. While in Britain Ainslie returned to Jedburgh where he married the daughter of James Potts, later a judge in the Court of Admiralty. The same year he acquired from the Séminaire de Québec an estate in Sillery on which stood Samos, the former residence of Bishop Pierre-Herman Dosquet*, which had been partially destroyed during the war; Ainslie rebuilt it, renamed it Woodfield, and lived there until 1767 when he moved into Quebec. In 1764 he had been appointed a justice of the peace.
Quebec had had customs services since 1760, but in April 1762 the Treasury formally established a custom-house there with Montreal as an outport; on Murray’s recommendation, Thomas Knox was made collector and Ainslie controller, responsible for the audit of the collector’s accounts. Within months Ainslie became collector for the province of Quebec under the authority of Charles Stewart, surveyor general of a customs district that included New York and Pennsylvania. For this imperial function Ainslie received a salary of £300, and on Murray’s instructions he retained fees for collecting provincial duties continued from the French régime. The provincial imperial duality of Ainslie’s office ended in 1768; when local merchants refused to continue paying the provincial duties.
As collector, Ainslie figured prominently in the administration of customs and trade regulations in the province. Acting through poorly paid and often negligent inspection and clerical officers, he was responsible for registration of vessels, inspection of merchants’ bonds, examination of incoming cargoes for dutiable goods, collection of duties, clearance of export cargoes, and enforcement of imperial trade laws. One of his most troublesome administrative problems arose from poor customs facilities at Quebec. He pressed unsuccessfully for adequate facilities for docking, inspection, and the storage of dutiable items. From 1763 his attempts to secure the King’s Wharf in Lower Town Quebec for private as well as customs use generated opposition from merchants, and from a grand jury in 1764. As well, Ainslie faced the problem of the unmanageably lengthy customs frontier of Quebec which facilitated smuggling from France, frequently via the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and the Baie des Chaleurs. At both locations contraband goods were trans-shipped and daringly run up the St Lawrence. Ainslie’s capacity to control this traffic was improved in 1763 and 1764 by Murray’s assignment of additional naval patrols and establishment of a vice-admiralty court necessary for prosecuting illicit trade.
Following the arrival of Lieutenant Governor Guy Carleton in 1766, Ainslie became increasingly embroiled in the complex disputes over fees and imperial-provincial jurisdictions that encumbered customs operations throughout North America. In 1767 the Quebec custom-house was placed under the American Board of Customs, formed that year at Boston. Ainslie claimed exemption as an imperial officer from audit by authorities of the province of Quebec. This claim along with his collection since 1765 of imperially authorized fees, which he based four years later on the comparatively high fee schedule used at Halifax, were challenged in 1769 and 1770 by Carleton, who was seeking to tighten public finances and to curb excessive extraction of fees by such “men of low birth and no education.” In the bitter exchange that ensued, Carleton questioned Ainslie’s integrity and condemned the worst local features of an incredibly unwieldy customs system and its grossly abused fee privileges. Although supported by law and the Boston board, Ainslie, under Carleton’s threat of suspension, grudgingly but prudently decided not to continue with fees until the matter of fee collection had been regulated. In 1774 the Court of Common Pleas at Quebec, to which Ainslie had appealed, restored his use of the Halifax schedule.
The institution of new duties under the Quebec Revenue Act, in force from April 1775, saddled Ainslie with other onerous responsibilities. The act imposed a discriminatory tariff aimed at fostering triangular trade between Britain, the West Indies, and Quebec. The high duty placed on imported rum, however, stimulated smuggling from the American colonies via Lake Champlain, thus putting pressure on a custom-house recently established by Ainslie at St Johns (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Que. At the Quebec docks, where Ainslie was personally involved, incidents of seizure, forceful evasion, and pursuit may also have been related to the new tariff structure. The act authorized Ainslie’s retention of the cost of collecting the duties; lacking specific instruction, he deducted almost nine per cent of his receipts. The net proceeds were paid quarterly to the province’s receiver general, but Ainslie repeatedly resisted provincial control and refused the controller his legitimate right of access to the accounts before they were forwarded to the Treasury.
The resulting debate was overshadowed in 1775 by the outbreak of the American revolution. Through loyalist friends, and possibly relations, residing in Boston, Ainslie fearfully monitored developments there. As a customs officer he was exempt from military service, but by October, following the American invasion of the colony, he had voluntarily become a captain in the British militia at Quebec. He was at first pessimistic about the colony’s ability to resist the invaders. “We must fall in a few days . . . ,” he wrote to Sylvester Gardiner at Boston in November; “God forgive those who have so cruelly abandoned us.” However, the daily record he kept between 1 Dec. 1775 and 7 May 1776, which has been regarded as the fullest and most accurate of the British narratives of the siege of the city, reveals his European imperial bias and a sense of restored confidence. He denounced the demagoguery of British “Grumbletonians” and of American “Banditti” and on 5 March 1776 described the American observance of the “bloody Boston Massacre” of 1770 as an anarchistic honouring of illegal opposition to the New England customs. Although he had never seen European troops in action during the revolution, Ainslie asserted that it was the auxiliaries of other nations who gave the Americans their strength. The defenders of Quebec had “nought to fear from the natives of America,” be they Americans or Canadians; indeed from within the city walls they “wou’d laugh at an army of 10,000 habitants.” The only exceptions to Ainslie’s general condemnation of the ungrateful Canadians were the “nobles” and the clergy, both royalist, and the militia within the city, whose courage during the repulse of Richard Montgomery*’s desperate attack of 31 Dec. 1775 had impressed him.
Ainslie resumed regular customs collections following the American withdrawal in 1776. In addition to the custom-house at St Johns, others had been established under his authority at the gulf outports of Gaspé and Bonaventure by 1775, and later at New Carlisle. His efforts to control illicit trade, which persisted throughout and for a time after the revolutionary war, were complicated by difficulties in coordinating customs and naval operations, the laxity and inconsistency of customs in the Maritime and American colonies, and a confusing realignment of North American trade. Partially in response to these problems, more rigid registration procedures for vessels were implemented in 1786 in Quebec. Despite this measure, the incidence of counterfeit British or colonial registrations on American vessels, particularly in the Baie des Chaleurs, remained disturbingly high. On the other hand, according to Ainslie, illicit inland traffic declined noticeably when trade restrictions were relaxed.
The closure of the port of Quebec during the long winter season facilitated frequent absences by Ainslie, most often in Britain and ostensibly on customs business. In 1768 Carleton had been forced to have Ainslie ordered back after a prolonged absence, an abuse common throughout the imperial customs system. During two of his visits to London, in 1777 and 1784, Ainslie, because of his thorough familiarity with British North American trade, testified on the subject before the Privy Council. On both occasions, as well as at Quebec in 1786, he sought vainly to secure appointment to Quebec’s Legislative Council.
Following the return to Quebec in 1786 of Carleton, now Lord Dorchester, as governor, Ainslie’s operations were subjected to repeated scrutiny. Evidently conscious of the British Customs Board’s closer regulation of colonial operations, as well as its efforts to reform the fee system in Britain, Dorchester also recognized Quebec’s trade deficit and the hopeless inadequacy of the colony’s revenue, which was drawn largely from the British Exchequer. He pointed to the unregulated fee structures and unaudited accounts of the receiver general [see Sir Thomas Mills*; William Grant (1744–1805)] and Ainslie himself as major factors. During a provincial revenue inquiry by the Legislative Council in 1788, the Treasury confirmed the need for stricter auditing, and damaging testimony was received from Ainslie’s controller, Thomas Scott, who had received no share of customs fees taken since his appointment in 1769. Ainslie’s loose management of the Quebec custom-house, his accounting procedures, and his augmentation to around 13.5 per cent per annum, in the year 1787, of the deduction for his fee and other costs charged against provincial revenues – in order to compensate, with some justification, for past salary reductions and an increased work load – again drew Dorchester’s criticism in 1795 and 1796. Deficiencies such as those in Ainslie’s administration, however, were common in the imperial bureaucracy and the Treasury tacitly supported the collector. Indeed in 1791 it had appointed him to investigate the “state of the several Ports” and customs operations in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, and Cape Breton Island; his report unfortunately has not survived. Nevertheless, it is known that different commercial interests and tariff policies had dictated, instead of an integrated system, independent customs operations in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, each of which suffered serious revenue liabilities and was likely understaffed. In Quebec as in Nova Scotia, the heavy incidence of smuggling and of false British registration of vessels, which enabled the evasion of several restrictive trade acts, was countered with minimal success, even though in 1794 an additional customs vessel was placed at Ainslie’s disposal.
Along with his customs work, from the 1770s Ainslie had been involved in some private business activities. In November 1774 he acquired for £400 cash from the Quebec merchant Jacques Perrault*, known as Perrault l’aîné, the right to collect a debt of £500 owed by Louis Liénard de Beaujeu de Villemonde. In August 1779 he purchased for £600 three lots at the juncture of Rue Sainte-Anne and Rue du Trésor with the Place d’Armes; the purchase included two houses, one of which, on Sainte-Anne, Ainslie had been renting as his residence for a number of years. Ainslie’s house faced the Place d’Armes, and in 1786 in a disagreement, apparently provoked by his negligence over snow removal, he was beaten with a musket and narrowly evaded the deadly thrust of a sentry’s bayonet. The incident was an outburst of the civil-military discord that simmered beneath the surface of the “very nett [neat] New England Society,” which Ainslie had once described at Quebec. In 1793 he sold to James Fisher* for £775 all the property, except his house, acquired in 1779. Also in 1793 he purchased for £6,000 a one-quarter interest in the Quebec brewery of Young and Company. Two years later Ainslie’s daughter Christian (Christianna) married one of his partners, John Young, and in 1796 Ainslie transferred to his son Gilbert his interest in Young and Company for £3,850 in order to start him in business. Ainslie’s prosperity is not certain, however, since in 1797 he owed £3,030 to Joshua Winslow, a debt which was still outstanding in 1800. Ainslie had become publicly involved in the social life of the British community at Quebec only in the 1790s. In 1794 he became a member of the Association, formed that year to support the existing political system in Britain and its colonies, and lieutenant-colonel of the Quebec Battalion of British Militia. From 1794 to 1796 he was deputy grand master of the Society of Free and Accepted Masons.
Ainslie apparently never reconciled himself to life in the colony, despite his long residence, and in 1799 he put up for sale his house and a farm in Sainte-Foy, and retired to London; he was succeeded as collector of customs by Thomas Scott. Ainslie resided for a time in London but by 1804 had moved to Wells, four miles from his birthplace. In 1802 he sold for £400 a lot he had acquired in 1780 for about £200 in the faubourg Saint-Jean, near Quebec. In 1803 he received a grant of 700 acres in Granby Township, part or all of which he sold for £28 to Josias Wurtele* the following year. Two years later, after Gilbert Ainslie dissolved his partnership with Young, Thomas successfully sued his son for property, including the brewery. He died in his native parish in 1806.
As customs collector, Thomas Ainslie had participated in the development of trade to Quebec for almost 40 years, possibly the longest period of service for an imperial officer in that colony. His involvement in various controversies, notably the acrimonious disputes with Carleton over fees and accounts, exemplifies some of the formidable administrative problems that encumbered the entire imperial customs service during the 18th century.
[Thomas Ainslie is the author of a journal on the siege of Quebec which is held by the Houghton Library, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Mass. (ms Sparks I, Thomas Ainslie journal). At least two manuscript copies of the journal also survive; one, dated 1794, is at the Rhodes House Library, Univ. of Oxford (mss, Can. r.2, Thomas Ainslie journal), and the other, dating from the 19th century, is at the National Maritime Museum (JOD/66, ms 58/055, Thomas Ainslie journal). The Remembrancer; or, Impartial Repository of Public Events (London), 6 (1778), published a text almost identical to Ainslie’s journal, entitled “Journal of the most remarkable occurrences in Quebec, from the 14th of November, 1775 to the 7th of May, 1776; by an officer of the garrison,” a text which was reprinted first in William Smith, History of Canada: from its first discovery to the peace of 1763 (2v., Quebec, 1815), 2: 81–138, and then in N.Y. Hist. Soc., Coll., [3rd ser.], 13 (1880). Ainslie’s “Journal of the most remarkable occurences in the province of Quebec from the appearance of the rebels in September 1775 until their retreat on the sixth of May . . .1776” was published in Blockade of Quebec in 1775–1776 by the American revolutionists (les Bastonnais), ed. F. C. Würtele (Quebec, 1906; repr. Port Washington, N.Y., and London, 1970), and again as Canada preserved; the journal of Captain Thomas Ainslie, ed. S. S. Cohen ([Toronto, 1968]). Genealogical and family information was provided by Mr C. M. Ainslie of Oxford, Eng. d.r.]
ANQ-Q, CN1-25, 18 août 1779, 11 nov. 1780, 26 févr. 1783; CN1-205, 11 déc. 1772, 16 juill. 1773, 12 févr. 1778; CN1-230, 8 févr., 22 mars 1802; 1er août, 1er, sept. 1804; CN1-248, 7 nov. 1774; CN1-256, 10 Oct., 13, 16 Nov. 1793; 18 May, 15 Aug. 1798; 20 Feb. 1800; CN1-284, 12 févr. 1793, 18 juill. 1795, 13 août 1800. AP, Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Quebec), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 21 June, 9 Aug. 1773; 21 March 1776; 7 Aug. 1777; 22 March 1782; 22 Jan. 1784; 3 June 1785; 21 July 1797. BL, Add. mss 21735/2, 21736, 21860, 21873, 21877 (copies at PAC). GRO, Reg. of births and baptisms for the parish of Jedburgh, 12 Feb. 1729. Mass. Hist. Soc., Gardiner, etc., II: 89. PAC, MG 23, GII, 1, ser. 1, l–3; ser. 3; 26; MG 55/30, no.2; RG 1, E1, 106–7, 112; RG 4, A1, 1, 12–15, 17, 19–20, 28, 30–31, 44, 50, 62; RG 68, 89; 202. PRO, CO 42/1–5, 42/10, 42/12, 42/16, 42/24–25, 42/27–28, 42/30–31, 42/34, 42/47–49, 42/51, 42/69, 42/72, 42/77, 42/100, 42/102, 42/105–9, 42/114 (mfm. at PAC). [James Jeffry], “Journal kept in Quebec in 1775 by James Jeffry,” ed. William Smith, Essex Institute, Hist. Coll. (Salem, Mass.), 50 (1914): 135. “Official proclamations, etc.,” AO Report, 1906: 7, 14–15. Quebec Gazette, 1763–1813. Robert Douglas of Glenbervie, The baronage of Scotland; containing an historical and genealogical account of that kingdom . . . (Edinburgh, 1798), 301. Quebec almanac, 1780–1802. W. H. Atherton, Historical brochure commemorating the official opening of the new customs and excise building at Montreal in nineteen hundred and thirty six (Montreal, 1936). T. C. Barrow, Trade and empire: the British customs service in colonial America, 1660–1775 (Cambridge, 1967). André Bernier, Le Vieux-Sillery ([Québec], 1977), 75. Gordon Blake, Customs administration in Canada: an essay in tariff technology (Toronto, 1957), 15–39, 60. Burt, Old prov. of Quebec (1968), 1: 46, 121, 129–32; 2: 185–86. John Ehrman, The younger Pitt; the years of acclaim (New York, 1969), 92, 176, 270–71, 289–92. E. E. Hoon, The organization of the English customs system, 1696–1786, intro. R. C. Jarvis (2nd ed., Newton Abbot, Eng., 1968). [R. L. P. Morden], Border bairns; an Ainslie family history (n.p., ). Neatby, Quebec, 66, 81–82, 97. C. R. Ritcheson, Aftermath of revolution; British policy towards the United States, 1783–1795 (Dallas, Tex., 1969), 196–97. D. M. Clark, “The American Board of Customs, 1767–1783,” American Hist. Rev. (New York and London), 45 (1940): 777–806. W. B. Kerr, “The Stamp Act in Quebec,” English Hist. Rev. (London and New York), 47 (1932): 648–51.
© 1983–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
David Roberts, “AINSLIE, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ainslie_thomas_5E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||David Roberts|
|Title of Article:||AINSLIE, THOMAS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|