W.D. Cooper. "Boston Tea Party.", The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789.
Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. In book: The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789. Engraving.
In 1759 Benjamin Franklin wrote a “Defense of the Americans” for a newspaper called the London Chronicle. Here, Franklin defended American character and shed light on the connection between the purchase of British manufactures and a colonial American identity oriented toward Britain.
…they wear the manufactures of Britain, and follow its fashions perhaps too closely, every remarkable change in the mode making its appearance there within a few months after its invention here; a natural effect of their constant intercourse with England, by ships arriving almost every week from the capital, their respect for the mother country, and admiration of every thing that is British.
Benjamin Franklin, The London Chronicle, May 12, 1759
Six years later, in 1765, at the height of a Stamp Act Crisis that proved to be the opening chapter of a decade of increasing tension between the American colonies and England, Franklin returned to the theme of imported British manufactures in his four hours of testimony on the conflict before the House of Commons in Great Britain. But this time, Franklin had a different end in mind as he responded to his Parliamentary questioners:
A. Franklin: You will find that, if the act is not repealed, they will take very little of your manufactures in a short time.
Q. Is it in their power to do without them?
A. Franklin: I think they may very well do without them….
Q. What used to be the pride of the Americans?
A. Franklin: To indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain.
Q. What is now their pride?
A. Franklin: To wear their old clothes over again, till they can make new ones.
What had happened during the intervening years? Franklin focused on the colonists’ relationship with Britain as defined by their consumption of British manufactures, but a profound change in attitudes had occurred in that brief time. British items of trade became a potent weapon in the political battle between Great Britain and her North American colonies.
This lesson looks at the changes in British policies and the colonists’ resistance through the topic of tea, clothing, and other British goods. Students analyze and interpret key historical artifacts as well as visual and textual sources that shed light on how commodities such as tea became important symbols of personal and political identity during the years leading up to the formal Declaration of Independence in 1776. The lesson asks teachers and their students to consider whether there can be a symbolic “language” of artifacts in the same way that a new language of politics developed in the revolutionary era (see the related EDSITEment lesson The Declaration of Independence: “An Expression of the American Mind).
At the end of this lesson, students will be able to
By the mid-eighteenth century, British colonists of all ranks were experiencing a consumer revolution. For the gentry, substantial houses based on English Georgian architecture rose on the landscape. Inside colonial households, British imported goods were commonly used and displayed. A “language” of goods took hold to help traveler and resident navigate among the regions, as Scottish traveler Alexander Hamilton (see his 1774 Iterinarium on EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory) discovered to his dismay. These goods—textiles, furniture, and even table forks—made it possible for increasing numbers of colonists to pursue the ideal of refinement, an appearance of British gentility, in their everyday lives.
Colonists developed a strong attachment to the taking of tea, a genteel ritual that linked the various social levels of colonial society. This new ceremony featured exotic new beverages imported from the Orient. Initially esteemed for its medicinal purposes, tea came to be valued as evidence of gentility, and it spread through all ranks of society—aristocrat and commoner alike—as a result of the East India Company’s promotion. The preparation, service, and consumption of tea required an entirely new range of goods—the teapot, sugar bowl, imported cups and saucers, and even a new furniture form – the tea table—as well as a special kind of knowledge for mastering the holding of a tea cup or buying the correct style of tea cup.
The colonists’ shared experience as consumers in the new British imperial economy gave them the cultural resources to develop strategies of political protests: consumer politics. The British government embarked upon a program of imperial reform in the 1760s [see forthcoming EDSITEment lesson, Empire and Identity in the American Colonies] that included new taxes to raise revenue from the colonies. British policies raised resistance among the colonists over issues of economic burdens and political principles. Large numbers of colonists—particularly women— supported the boycott movement, the center of colonial resistance that gave rise to a mass political movement.
The following short introduction and essays from a recent book provide excellent overviews to the consumer politics that helped shape the American Revolution.
The following articles on EDSITEment-reviewed websites provide excellent overviews of the period. Teachers might want to use these to get a better understanding of the overall dynamics of the period.
For background on the Boston Tea Party and other related events, you may want to take a look at the following EDSITEment lesson plans. While meant for the middle school level, the lessons contain valuable resources and background material.
The following resources provide all you need to structure a class around the reading of objects and texts. Keep in mind that the article and the website as a whole are designed for an Advanced Placement class. However, as the Smithsonian website makes clear, some of the material featured here can be used for regular classes. For the purposes of this lesson, the following resources are highly useful. You should read the excellent overview essay on the EDSITEment-reviewed Smithsonian Education Website:
The Student Handouts accompanying this article are superb. For the purposes of this lesson, see especially:
As an alternative (or in conjunction) you may want to use the following three primary source analysis sheets on Digital Classroom at the National Archives:
If you do all of the activities in this lesson it should take you three 40 minute classes, plus two nights of homework. Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing and annotating.
In this activity, students learn how to interpret one or more historical objects (tea pots) as a way to become acquainted with the material world of the revolutionary-era colonists. They will also learn how those objects contributed to the way that the political mobilization against Great Britain was understood and developed. Finally, they will learn how teapots were only one item—although a very important item—in the world of goods that helped colonists fashion new identities. They will create a visual story with these historical objects by annotating teapots and writing labels for their exhibits on the “fashions and manufactures of Great Britain.”
1. On the first day, the teacher should model the interpretation of artifacts by looking at one of the key objects in the new Atlantic consumer culture—a teapot. In a whole class setting, model the interpretation of this teapot with the words “Stamp Act Repeal'd” on it (from Elizabeth Murray Project, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed website the National Park Service). Teachers can also include the interpretation of several teapots, with the words “Stamp Act Repeal’d” on it from Curating an Exhibit, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed site, Learner.org. Teachers may wish to contrast this item with two other teapots from the Smithsonian Museum of American History.) The Curating site provides a model for understanding a teapot in the context of a political event. Materials on artifact analysis in Background Information for the Teacher, especially those provided on the Smithsonian site, may be helpful in demonstrating how one goes about analyzing a historical artifact.
Modeling object interpretation:
2. For homework have students read the following two items:
Following up on the Franklin text, ask students to think about why Americans bought British goods. Why did they not buy American teapots?
3. Divide the class into three groups—High, Middling, and Low. Ask students to look at the teapot for their respective group and have them describe what they see and offer an initial annotation of their assigned teapot.
4. Looking at Material Culture: Have the students look at the following additional primary sources for their group to compare teapots with other consumer goods. Students should annotate their teapots with comparison observations based on these sources.
Annotation: Students can use the source or some part of it (if a text) or also refer to the text/object in their annotation. By linking several annotations to their teapot they should have a central object with several annotation boxes around it that tell a story about what the teapot means in the context of other objects and texts from the age of refinement.
Label: Students should write a general label for their story: one to two paragraphs on what the teapot and other goods mean for an understanding of the Age of Refinement and the era of the American Revolution. These labels should be similar to the general wall labels used in a museum exhibition. In a few sentences they should make clear what “links” their teapot to their other objects and texts? In writing their descriptions, they should consider these general questions:
5. Students should share their visually-annotated teapots with each other and discuss in a whole group what sorts of stories objects can tell. What are some of the differences between sources that are artifacts and those that are texts? Can you “read” an artifact in the same way that you can read a text document?
In this activity, students situate tea and imported British manufactures squarely within the context of the struggle with the government of Britain. The previous lesson made clear how consumer goods helped the colonists in the process of defining their identities. Students are divided into 4 groups: A, B, C, and D; these groups read documents that roughly move through the years of the revolutionary crisis from 1766 to 1775 (group D spans the decade). This struggle over tea and importation led the Continental Congress in 1774 to adopt a national economic strategy of non-importation and non-consumption. Over that decade the colonists also moved from political debates to political and military action.
Each team will create part of a four-part drama about the relationship of American dependence on British manufactures to the economic politics of the American Revolution.
P.1 of Worksheets for Activity 2
Questions to consider for this group: What do the colonists see as signs of danger? What sort of arguments against Parliament’s authority do the colonists make? What sorts of actions regarding taxation of goods do they propose?
P.2 of Worksheets for Activity 2
Questions for this group to consider: How would refusing to consume tea change British policies? What are some of the arguments for associations? Arguments against?
P.3 of Worksheets for Activity 2
Questions for this group to consider: Why was the tea destroyed? What would that destruction accomplish? How do issues of gender and region affect the political debate?
P.4 of Worksheets for Activity 2
Questions for this group to consider: What were different reasons to support or oppose non-importation? How do different interests end up on different sides of the conflict?
Ask them to write a two-page essay for homework interpreting this cartoon in light of this lesson. Encourage them to focus on one or two of the following questions/approaches in their essays.
3-4 class periods