Boycotting Baubles of Britain
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A. Franklin: You will find that, if the act is not repealed, they will take very little of your manufactures in a short time.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).
How did colonial Americans use imported British commodities and manufactures to help fashion personal and political identities for themselves?
What role did British commodities and manufactures play in the theory and strategy of the American Revolution?
At the end of this lesson, students will be able to: Explain how a mid-eighteenth century consumer revolution led to a large and increasing number of British commodities and manufactures being made available to the colonists
Describe the ways colonists used these imported commodities to create personal and political identities for themselves
Describe the general goals as well as the course and success of the non-importation movement directed against British commodities and manufactures
Tell how objects of material culture “speak” to us about the people who used them