A Peek Into the Past

Prior to the American Revolution, Americans greatly relied on, and were even obsessed with, British goods.  As the Industrial Revolution progressed during the 18th century, British goods became accessible to free American colonists of almost every social class.  From 1770 to 1773, “American consumption of British manufacturers grew from 5.7% to 26% of the total of all domestic goods exported around the world from Britain” (Brazier, 11).  There was a solid system in tact—colonies grew and exported raw materials to Great Britain, where they were manufactured into high quality consumer goods, and then exported and sold back to the colonists.


British dress in the 18th century.

The goods that Americans purchased from the British were considered “status markers,” and the more goods that a person had, the better that person could display his or her position of high social status.  “Colonial Americans equated British objects with gentility and gentility was classified as tasteful, respectable, and honorable” (Trunzo, 102).

dollar-bill-jpgGeorge Washington and his family were notorious for their lavish spending.  From their marriage in 1759, the Washingtons not only bought British food and apparel, but “extravagant purchases that represented all the grandeur of high society in Virginia” (Chadwick, 88).  Mount Vernon became one of the finest mansions of the South and displayed the wealth of the Washingtons in a way that gave them important status in Virginia society.  As a representative to the First Continental Congress in 1774, Washington was expected to cease his habit of purchasing British goods for political reasons.  However, Washington believed his purchases reflected the civilized nature of the nation, and he was reluctant to refrain from using British goods.  When Washington and the other colonial elites finally agreed to the nonimportation agreements, they agreed only to change their habits of  consumption, but “did not agree to abandon European standards of gentility” (Yokota, 86).

Axe That Tax

The 1765 Stamp Act changed Anglo-American relations forever.

Following the Seven Years War, England faced a massive debt that it sought to relieve through the taxation of American colonists.  This caused Americans to think things over. . . Did they even need their mother country anymore?

Americans believed:

  • They were self sufficient
  • Had deeply cherished personal liberties found only in America
  • Had a surplus of virtue that England lacked
And they risked losing all of this with the Stamp Act. (Chadwick 164-165).
This man is being attacked near the famous Liberty Tree because he is a Loyalist.

Americans were outraged.  Tax collectors were tarred and feathered and their homes torn down.  An angry mob in Charleston went as far as burning a tax collector and then barged into the offices of others, forcing them to resign.  The tax was finally repealed in 1766, but relations between the two countries were never the same.

A year later, Parliament imposed the Townshend Acts to again raise duties on popular imports.  The Townshend Acts resulted in the creation of boycotts and nonimportation agreements.  By 1773, Americans shifted from the simple nonimportation, to full on nonconsumption.  This wasn’t easy considering the heavy reliance that Americans had on the British since the founding of the colonies.  However, in the eyes of the Americans, they had been betrayed by their mother country and were being unfairly taxed.  Americans started to believe that they were capable of breaking political ties in order to gain what they deemed fair.  However, such a task would require Americans to change their ways and to develop not only new consumer patterns, but also develop their forms of production.  These boycotts directly created the Homespun Movement.


Why Were Taxes Such a Big Deal?

One of the major reasons that taxes were such a problem was because at that time, Americans relied on a barter and trade/credit system to do business, and rarely negotiated on a cash and carry basis (Trunzo, 72).  There was a currency shortage in the colonies, and most Americans didn’t possess paper money or specie (gold or silver coins), so how were they supposed to pay their taxes?

Wondering exactly how American clothing was spun?  Find out here : DIY Homespun

Suggested Reading:

  • Brazier, Halie Nowell. “The Most Elegant and General Assortment of Plate:” The Market for Imported and Locally-made Sterling Silver, Consumer Activism, and National Identity in Charleston, 1760–1790. Diss. U of South Carolina, 2009. N.p.: ProQuest LLC, 2009. Print.
  • Chadwick, Bruce. The General and Mrs. Washington: The Untold Story of a Marriage and a Revolution. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2007.
  • Cantu Trunzo, Jennifer M. “Buying into It”: Propaganda, Consumerism, and the American Revolution in Southeastern Connecticut. Diss. Brown U, 2008. N.p.: ProQuest LLC, 2008. Print.
  • Yokota, Kariann Akemi. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation. Oxford [England: Oxford University Press, 2011.