Sugar, Tea and Liberty: Material Consumption and the American Revolution
On 22nd February 1770, an eleven-year-old boy was shot dead by a British customs official on the streets of Boston during an altercation about imports. Young Christopher Sneider’s death was glorified as nothing short of martyrdom by the Boston Gazette, and his funeral was one of the biggest processions colonial Boston had ever seen . The death was followed less than a month later by the infamous Boston Massacre, when yet again British officers opened fire on a protesting mob, this time killing five civilians and wounding six more. This was the moment at which Boston’s struggle became the American struggle. Tensions with Britain had been simmering throughout the colonies since the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, but what was it about events in Boston that occasioned such explosive violence? The simple answer: tea and sugar.
Of course there are never any simple answers in history, but British intervention in tea and sugar duties, as well as paper, textiles and all manner of other goods, carried with it dangerous consequences. Bernard Bailyn’s canonical work on the American Revolution has, since the 1960s, perpetuated a view of the Revolution as an intellectual and ideological event. In this view, the American Revolution was a crusade against the anti-liberty rhetoric of the British government, the Patriots pushing for separatism being entirely concerned with matters of liberty, rights and the pursuit of happiness . For decades, then, the American Revolution was conceived of as an intellectual, almost spiritual event.
Yet the ideas of liberty, freedom and equality were communicated through a distinctly material culture. Throughout the 1760s, a turbulent series of crises concerning the relationship with Britain had slowly engulfed the colonies. The Sugar Act of 1764, for example, reduced the official tax to be paid on sugar, but it compensated for the reduction by increasing provision for its collection. In 1765, the British government intensified the insult of the Sugar Act by introducing the Stamp Act, this time taxing the colonists for each piece of imported paper used. This was an affront to the colonies’ sense of dignity, a blatant ingratitude for the support and sacrifice offered up to the British war effort against France in North America in the 1750s. Although eventually repealed, the concessions did not come without dramatic protest and unrest across New England.
The government hadn’t learnt from their misjudgement, however, and insisted on treating the colonies as subjects and not citizens of the British Crown. In 1767, the Townshend Acts triggered more riots when the government created new duties on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea. The British defended the move by claiming that the Acts were an indirect form of taxation, but the growing Patriot movement gathered pace with their demands for Englishmen’s rights and parliamentary representation. A once amiable relationship was corrupted by misunderstandings of what it meant to be part of an empire, on both sides of the ocean.
It is easy from the events outlined above to extract a narrative that focuses on citizens’ rights, on constitutionality and political responsibility; this, however, overlooks one basic component of the imperial crisis. It was initiated, perpetuated and understood in the language of material culture. It is interesting to speculate whether the Patriot movement would have extended as far as it had if the British had directed their assault on less popular goods. For long over a century, the Navigation Acts had made the colonies dependent on British trade, but when Britain began to openly brandish their superiority it was the taxes on tea and sugar that hit a majority of working families, and not just the rich.
Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, in fact, British fashions and manners had been widely popular across the colonies, and prosperous tobacco and wheat production meant that there was a huge market for British styles across colonial society. Britain and America had, together, constructed a framework of shared experience that bridged the thousands of physical miles that separated the metropole and periphery . Moreover, recent scholarship has actually revealed the depth and breadth of loyalty to the monarchy that existed in colonial America; by the 1770s, most protests against Parliament actually took the form of petitions to George III, appealing to him to restore constitutional balance .
Up until 1774, the colonists were therefore still attached to two iconic symbols of what it meant to be British – tea and the King; when they protested against Parliament’s intrusion on tea and sugar consumption, they did so by rebuking Parliament’s infringement on the King’s prerogative. Tea and sugar, then, were at the heart of the problem of taxation and how the British Empire should incorporate its subjects.
Of course, tea and sugar were one component of a wider political debate, but their widespread consumption gave the majority of colonists access to a language of rights and rebellion that spread throughout society. In a context where drinking tea and wearing certain fabrics were expressions of British-American identity, non-consumption and boycotts became distinctly political acts that could be committed by lower-class housewives as well as upper-class landowners. American consciousness, in short, rested on the foundations of a vibrant material culture, in which tea cups and silver spoons became vessels of major historical change.