Friday, December 01, 2006

The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 7: Making Lists - Taking Names

1767. One year after the repeal of the Stamp Act. Charles Townshend develops a new scheme for lowering the taxes of the English ruling class while making the colonists assist in financing a standing army in America. The Townshend Revenue Acts – taxes on goods including glass, paint, paper and tea – was passed by Parliament.

Colonial response was significantly different than response to the Stamp Act. There was no violence in the street, as there was in 1765, and strangely, for some reason, the merchants were not so eager to take the reigns for non-importation. The movement this time originated with the consumers. In town meetings in various cities across the continent beginning in the fall of 1767, colonists generated lists of goods they would refuse to buy, signing their names for publication. The intention, as it was during the Stamp Act Crisis, was to cripple England’s poor manufacturing workers, giving them incentive to support the American cause.

Leading merchants refused to sign non-importation agreements until March, 1768, beginning with Boston, followed by New York and Philadelphia. Southern merchants stalled until the summer of 1769. During these two years, Americans formed hundreds of groups to monitor merchant activity. Names of merchants who refused to sign non-importation agreements, or who broke their non-importation vows, were publicized and vilified. They were called, “Enemies of American Liberty; their Names will be made public; their Companies avoided; and every Stigma fixed upon them to make them despicable.”

Guilty merchants were coerced to perform public confessions before crowds of people. One merchant who took out of storage imported items he earlier promised not to sell was consequently described as a “vile Ingrate” and a “Reptile and Miscreant.”

And yet little or no blame seemed to fall upon the consumers. George Mason of Virginia said it best: “Experience [has] too fully proved that when the Goods are here, many of our People will purchase [them], even some who affect to be called Gentlemen. For this purpose, the Sense of Shame & the Fear of Reproach must be inculcated & enforced in the strongest Manner; and if that can be done properly, it has a much greater Influence upon the Actions of Mankind than is generally imagined. Nature has impress’d this useful Principle upon every Breast: it is a just observation that if Shame was banished out of the World, she wou’d carry away with her what little Virtue is left in it.” – this from the man who refused to sign the Constitution until it contained a Bill of Rights – an act that, oddly enough, ostracized him from the dominant political community.

These facts illuminate the entirely non-democratic nature of the non-importation movement. In fact, at one point New York merchants, desiring an end to non-importation, conducted a poll on whether New Yorkers desired an end to the movement. The poll numbers, which they quickly published, indicated that a clear majority desired a resumption of importation. However, these figures were quickly, cleverly, and violently discounted by supporters of non-importation.

By the summer of 1769, members of the British cabinet realized Townshend’s plan would simply not work. In March, 1770, Parliament repealed all the taxes, except for one on tea. This partial repeal was accepted by the colonists, which proceeded to quickly flock back to the marketplace.

Crisis averted, though not resolved. The difference of opinion communicated in the Declaration of Rights and Grievances passed by the Stamp Act Congress (which said Parliament had no right to tax the colonists without their consent) and the Declaratory Act of 1766 (which said Parliament HAS the right to tax the colonists) still remained. Three years later, Parliament would act once more, and we shall see, in the final chapter, how the Tea Act would lead to the eventual resolution of this difference of opinion through military violence.


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