Shopping Gave Rise to America’s Growing Conflict With Britain 

 

Pair Paktong candlesticks

American colonists were eager to acquire “luxury” goods, exemplified by a pair of candlesticks in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection. These were made by British craftsmen in the 18th century of paktong, an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc that resembles silver.

How did shopping and the desire to acquire new consumer goods give rise to the American Revolution?

During the 18th century more ordinary men and women in colonial America were acquiring luxury goods than ever before. From tea and tea sets to silk waistcoats, card tables, and sets of carved chairs, people pursued portable and fashionable goods to communicate their rising standard of living, style and respectability.

Fashion reigns here with despotic sway. New modes are imported full as soon as they are conveyed in Counties at a distance from London – Thomas Gwatkin, circa 1773

Travelers and military officers after the French and Indian War returned to England with stories of America’s prosperity and their conspicuous consumption of British manufactured goods. Thus, parliament looked to the colonies to help pay imperial debts and passed the Stamp Act, Townshend Duties and Tea Act, taxing a variety of imported commodities. Colonists relied on British imports but took offense at such taxation. They responded with boycotts.

While groups of local merchants usually planned and implemented non-importation, the movement grew larger, more successful, and increasingly democratic. Communal sacrifices brought together shopkeepers and planters, artisans and farmers, northerners and southerners, and old money and new in a common cause as consumers and as victims of British taxation. The non-importation movements proved that colonial customers could exert economic pressures on Parliament to force change.

Revolutionary boycotts were novel. The consumer had never played such a key role in any previous popular rebellion. The widely shared democratic experience of “shopping” enabled people from all ranks of society to express with one voice their anger at Parliament and their resolve to oppose its unjust laws. Joining together in this revolutionary cause gave rise to a growing awareness of national identity among the colonies.

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