America 250: From Royal Subjects to Republican Citizens

(I am pleased to present below the text of an illuminating presentation given at the June 14-16 American Revolution Conference sponsored by the Fort Plain Museum. Permission was granted by the author. His original title was “The American Political Community turns 250: Exploring the Origins of a Proto-National Ethos on the Eve of the American Revolution.” Subheads, paragraphing, and graphics have been added. – Nancy Spannaus)

by Shawn David McGhee, PhD

Good afternoon, all, and thank you, Brian Mack and trustees of the Fort Plain Museum, for inviting me here to speak today. And thank you to those present for graciously taking the time to attend this session. And a hearty thank you to Dr. Gregory Urwin, who has been my biggest supporter and most valuable critic. Finally, I would like to thank Mr. Bruce Franklin for seeing value in my ideas and publishing the book. I am truly honored and deeply appreciative of this opportunity to share some remarks on my research.

I am here with you today to discuss my book, No Longer Subjects of the British King: The Political Transformation of Royal Subjects to Republican Citizens. What I will reveal this afternoon is how disparate grassroots resistance movements joined in solidarity with those suffering in Boston after Parliament passed the Coercive Acts. I will further illustrate how these disconnected communities called for a Grand Continental Congress to coordinate them into a single resistance community through the shared burden of sacrifice.

Sacrifice came in many forms, from the well-known examples of colonists forgoing British merchandise and refusing colonial goods and services to British officials, to lesser appreciated instances of Americans refraining from attending dances, theater productions, horse racing, and a range of other social transactions. American subjects made these private decisions to commit to self-denial in public spaces, thus allowing colonists to perform their politics in measurable ways before their peers. Through material culture and public behavior, then, supporters of the common cause were able to recognize both who was inside and, just as important, who was outside the American community of suffering. And this process of material and cultural sacrifice, my work presents, forged the building blocks of a proto-national state and Americans exchanged the robes of monarchy for the clothes of republicanism. This discussion will take us from local communities, into the halls of Congress, and back to the streets, cities, and ports of British North America. Well, with that brief outline, let us begin.

Americans Under Assault

In 1777, Thomas Jefferson explained to Benjamin Franklin that their countrymen had “deposited the monarchical and taken up the republican government with as much ease as would have attended their throwing off an old and putting on a new suit of clothes.” Nothing, Jefferson continued, hindered “our political metamorphosis.” Jefferson, as only he could, effortlessly described in a couple of sentences what took me several years to unravel. My book is an exploration into this political transformation.

How did Americans experience political transformation during the process of revolution? Certainly a revolution had taken place within the British Empire. But when and how, exactly, did subjects become citizens? In other words, by what point and by what process did the revolution create Americans?

On December 16, 1773, a few dozen disguised men quietly boarded the Eleanor, Beaver, and Dartmouth, and, over the course of about three and half hours, tossed 342 chests of the Royal East India Company’s tea into the sea. John Adams wrote in his diary that day, “The Die is cast.” When George III learned of this vandalism, he condemned Boston’s behavior and demanded Parliament find some way in which to secure greater colonial dependence. Prime Minister Lord Frederick North, himself outraged by Boston’s latest example of blatant insubordination, declared the contest no longer hinged on whether or not Parliament could tax Americans, but whether or not Parliament had any authority over the colonies at all. Indeed, North thundered, “We must punish, control, or yield to them.” Parliament’s response was swift and ruthless.

The Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773

The third and final imperial crisis is the outlier in the British Empire’s eighteenth-century political drama. The Coercive Acts weren’t designed to raise revenue equally from each of the colonies like the earlier Sugar, Stamp, and Townshend Acts. Instead, Parliament crafted these initiatives to punish Boston. The Coercive Acts closed Boston port, altered the Massachusetts charter, allowed royal officials to be tried outside of Massachusetts, and a outlined a more stringent Quartering Act; The final imperial crisis, then, was not a struggle over taxation without representation. It was perhaps even more alarming; it was “legislation without representation,” a direct assault on local rule and colonial tradition. This part of the story is well known. What is less appreciated today and was completely unexpected then, however, is just how communities outside of Boston reacted to these measures.

Whigs sensed the Coercive Acts threatened the political identities of subjects in Massachusetts specifically but colonial America generally. Many Americans held a particular understanding of the English Constitution rooted in a mythological history of colonial settlement. According to this view, original settlers brought their political identities across the Atlantic, reshaped them while taming a dangerous wilderness, and memorialized them in colonial charters. Settlers earned these identities, this view held, at tremendous cost in blood and treasure and embraced a tradition of passing them to their progeny inviolate. Colonial identities fused English rights with local customs and traditions, practices that varied by colony and even town. For American Whigs, the Coercive Acts represented a direct assault on the political identities of every American subject.

South Carolina’s Henry Laurens recognized the ministry aimed to “terrify the other colonies into a compliance.” Virginia’s Edmund Pendleton argued that every American saw the Coercive Acts as “a common attack on American rights.” George Washington claimed, “the cause of Boston . . . now is and ever will be considered as the cause of America.” He then made a comparison that would have caused any Virginia gentleman to shudder, remarking Americans must defend their liberties or become “as tame, and abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.”

In fact, communities throughout British North America began publishing local resistance resolutions, all signaling their solidarity with Boston. These resolutions effectively asked Americans to join in material sacrifice, describing the process of self-denial as “suffering in the common cause.” If colonists dedicated to non-importation, many reasoned, Britain’s merchants and manufacturers would pressure Parliament into repealing the Coercive Acts. Sacrifice, then, seemed the most efficient way to relieve Boston and rescue liberty.

Resolutions of Resistance

Resistance resolutions from New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South employed remarkably consistent language expressive of similar fears and desires. A few examples will suffice. Resolutions from Cumberland County, Massachusetts warned that Parliament’s measures not only endangered Boston, but “threatened all the colonies with ruin and destruction.” Colonists must unite and suffer “many inconveniences,” these men predicted, if they hoped to protect liberty. Inhabitants of Rhode Island identified Parliament’s measures as an immediate threat to American liberty and property. Only “a firm and inviolable union of all the Colonies,” these men surmised, could provide Americans security. Residents of South Haven, New York, drafted resolutions declaring the Coercive Acts a direct attempt “to enslave the inhabitants of America, and put an end to all property.” To parry this assault, they called for colonial union and nonimportation.

Citizens reacted to the Coercive Acts throughout the colonies. Here, in Massachusetts.

Prince George County, Virginia, also pleaded for union and a commercial freeze with the metropole. This community, however, became the first to consider regulations beyond economic activity. Prince George’s resolutions directed colonists to refrain from slaughtering sheep and forgo “every kind of luxury, dissipation, and extravagance.” North of Prince George, Fauquier County’s resolutions employed identical language a week later.

During this early stage, colonists expressed a willingness to sacrifice in solidarity with Boston by curtailing their commercial activity. If colonists acted as “one man in every public measure” and adhered to the “resolves of the city and county where he resides,” one commentator noted, they could salvage their rights.

Most of these resolutions also called for the gathering of a Grand Continental Congress to effectively nationalize the resistance (more on this later).

Some communities, like Williamsburg, VA, Providence, RI, and Philadelphia, set aside a day for mourning, closing businesses, flying flags at half mast, and draping their homes in black to recognize Boston’s suffering and broadcast solidarity. Resistance resolutions also took up subscriptions to send Boston sheep, peas, money, fish, oil, rice, barrels of pork and butter, grain, wheat, rye, Indian corn, all for “that noble cause,” observed one writer. One observer proudly described the spirit of American resistance as “worthy of a Roman Bosum.” Another claimed Americans were “ready to sacrifice their interest, nay their lives” in defense of Boston and American liberty. Boston’s inhabitants, this observer offered, recognized Americans had united “in every measure of self-denial” to guard against “impending slavery.” One gentleman from New York provided £10 and “the best pipe of brandy in his distillery.” He reasoned, with not a little comedy, Virginia and the Carolinas had provided food, but felt “such glorious sufferers for the common good ought to drink as well as eat.”

Plenty of Americans joined in suffering by refusing the British army access to American goods and services they thought might advance Boston’s plight. Ship captains refused to allow the British army use of their vessels to transport soldiers and supplies, workers refused their labor to help construct British barracks, businesses refused to their wares. In one instance, ironmonger Samuel Walters of Sutton, MA, declared his services available only supporters of the cause with one exception: In an ad that ran for weeks in the Massachusetts Spy, Sutton offered to sell a hoe to America’s enemies if it helped dig a “Grave six Feet deep, to hide one or more of the Heads of those obnoxious Wretches.”

Beginning Steps toward a Union

Commitment to sacrifice began to forge a union among American Whigs through “suffering in the common cause.” And, as noted earlier, resistance actors called for a Continental Congress. Whigs envisioned this assembly as a symbol of colonial unity, expected it to house the collective wisdom of the land, and believed imperial harmony depended on its success. One writer placed American union and colonial solidarity within a classical framework most colonists would have appreciated. Why, he asked, did Greece fall to Philip of Macedon and afterward Rome? And why, he questioned, did Spain succumb to Carthage? “Because they contended for freedom separately,” he lectured. And why, he continued, did the Swiss cantons successfully resist tyranny? “Because they wisely regarded the interest of each as the interest of all,” he revealed. On the eve of the gathering of Congress, Abigail Adams remarked to her delegate husband, “The first of September, perhaps may be of as much importance to Great Britain as the Ides of March were to Caesar.” Adams interpreted Congress’s convening as either the empire’s rebirth or its demise.

A depiction of the First Continental Congress.

Newspapers provided the public a steady diet of support for Congress. One Philadelphian marveled, “The whole attention and conversation is wrapped up in Congress, [with] every mouth wishing them success.” Colonists held delegates in great esteem, explained this commentator, and “ardently expect the salvation of America.” Solomon Drowne, a visiting medical student from Rhode Island, exclaimed to his father, “My blood thrilled thro’ my Veins at the agreeable, Pleasant View of so many noble and sage Patriots, met in the great Cause of Liberty.” Drowne also recorded a story about Colonel George Washington that really captivated him. “I heard he [Washington] wished to God! the Liberties of America were to be determined by a single Combat between himself and G—e.” Attorney Joseph Reed summed up the spirit of the moment, writing “We are so taken up with Congress that we hardly think or talk of any thing else.” For most Americans, there was no bigger story during the summer of 1774 than the First Continental Congress.

Not everyone remained thrilled about Congress. One observer decried American resistance as “the beginnings of a rebellion.” If left unchecked, he predicted, the empire faced something akin to the English Civil War, which saw “the best blood of the nation spilled.” Still, the overwhelming press coverage was positive.

Delegates’ arrivals at Philadelphia have been either misunderstood or mythologized to the degree that many Americans today imagine these statesmen as founding brothers, old friends congregating at a reunion. The reality is, I think, more impressive than the myth. John Adams recognized that delegates were “all strangers, are not acquainted with each other’s language, ideas, views, [and] designs.” He further described delegates as representing “a diversity of religions, educations, manners, interests . . . it would seem almost impossible to unite in one plan of conduct.” The Georgia Gazette reported that Philadelphia was “full of Delegates and strangers,” while another observer described recent arrivals as “foreign members of Congress.” Connecticut’s Silas Deane reported that the “city was full of people from abroad.” Strangers, foreigners, and people from abroad? How then, did these men grow to trust one another? By socializing. The official business of Congress may have unfolded at Carpenters’ Hall, but building trust and making meaningful bonds took place during social calls and tavern visits.

Taverns served a range of functions in eighteenth-century colonial America, sometimes doubling as post offices or offering traveling judges workspace. They also served as political arenas. Within Philadelphia’s taverns, delegates ate, toasted, conversed, and gave speeches; these shared moments of sociability nurtured bonds among them. They acted out their politics before one another, performative exercises expressive of their dedication to the cause.

One evening at City Tavern, Virginia’s Richard Bland boasted he would have made it to Philadelphia had he been forced to walk. Fellow Virginian Benjamin Harrison claimed he would have attended Congress had it been held in Jericho. These men performed their commitment to the cause, encouraging others to similarly express loyalty. Let’s take a moment and walk through another evening of drunken patriotism:

A reconstructed City Tavern of Philadelphia, where Continental Congress members fraternized and strategized.

The next afternoon, John Adams joined delegates from Delaware and Maryland, where they read newspapers, talked politics, and “drank punch.” This fraternizing continued at Joseph Reed’s home with some New Jersey delegates. Later that evening, this collection relocated to Thomas Mifflin’s house, where Richard Henry Lee and others joined them. According to Adams, the group “drank sentiments till eleven o’clock.” Lee had spent the afternoon drinking wine with John Dickinson before arriving and, as Adams remembered it, appeared “very high.” Feeling the camaraderie (and likely the alcohol), delegates began offering toasts (or what they called sentiments), each political salute bringing the spirited group closer together. Adams recorded one delegate shouting “Union to the Colonies,” before delegates raised their glasses. One next cried out “May Britain be wise, and America free,” followed by, “A constitutional death to the Lords Bute, Mansfield, and North.” Finally, another proclaimed, “May the result of the Congress answer the expectations of the people.” These early moments of fraternal festivity helped foster Ciceronian friendships among the delegates. And this evening was by no means unique.

The press had little to offer during Congress’s stay at Philadelphia, as each delegate took an oath of secrecy. One critic described this informational omission as “that mysterious period of silence” that “kept the whole continent in suspense.” Moments of social intimacy, however, allowed delegates to size each other up, so to speak, to gauge each other’s intellect and commitment to the cause. Adams later claimed this fraternizing fostered “that kind of Friendship which is commonly felt between two members of the same public Assembly, who meet each other every day not only in public deliberations, but at private Breakfasts, dinners and Suppers” and other moments of social intimacy. Since the imperial crisis, Americans had “formed friendships that will never cease.”

Delegates arrived at Philadelphia a collection of strangers suspicious of one another. They departed as members of an elite fellowship and participants in a united resistance community. The connective socio-political sinews that joined delegates together helped facilitate what unfolded within Carpenters’ Hall.

Congress’s Radical Decisions

The First Continental Congress conducted its official business between September 5 and October 26, 1774. Now scholars have given this assembly far less scrutiny than its second incarnation and for good reason: The Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army, elevated provincial colonel George Washington to commander in chief of that army, and drafted the Declaration of Independence. Yet even those historians who study the First Congress hardly reach a consensus on its effectiveness or whether or not it was a conservative or radical assembly.

Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, scene for the first Continental Congress

Some scholars, like Worthington Chauncy Ford, have described that body as weak and unwilling to take any radical steps due to it being dominated by conservatives; Edmund Cody Burnett called Congress a “vaguely defined … idea of union.” Another went so far as to condemn Congress as a failed institution. Scholars do not describe Peyton Randolph, John Jay, or William Livingston as firebreathers; that label is typically reserved for Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, radicals tempered by their colleagues’ sober judgment. But considering personalities rather than Congress’s official positions only obscures just how radical that body proved to be.

The Congress aimed to restore American liberty at all costs, and frequently took some deeply radical positions. (emph. added—nbs) Here are some examples to support this observation.

When deciding where Congress would officially meet, Pennsylvania speaker Joseph Galloway offered the Pennsylvania Statehouse, which would have done two things: given Congress a ring of legitimacy and satisfied Pennsylvania’s conservative faction. Delegates were also offered Carpenters’ Hall, a center of Pennsylvania’s radicalism and home to the “Sam Adams of Philadelphia, Charles Thomson.” After touring the latter building and before touring the Statehouse, a surprise maneuver took place; South Carolina’s Thomas Lynch asked for a vote in favor of Carpenters’ Hall, stunning Galloway. Congress accepted the carpenters’ political hospitality.

Radical Charles Thomson played a leading role as secretary of the First Continental Congress, and later as well.

Lynch next moved to vote for a secretary to record Congress’s minutes and, in another blindside, voiced support for Galloway’s political enemy, radical Charles Thomson. After a brief debate, delegates approved him. Historians have not considered how Thomson’s appointment airbrushed dissent out of Congress’s records. Thomson recorded virtually every motion as passing unanimously, or NCD, Latin for Nemine Contridicente, or without dissent. This was lost on few, as it presented a unified front when in reality there were profound differences along the way. When confronted with whether or not Congress would vote by colony, which would have leveled the densely populated with the lightly populated colonies, or vote by delegates, which would have weighed each colony differently, Congress eventually settled on one vote per colony. Congress, against some large-colony pushback, settled on equality.

When deciding where to legally root British Americans’ rights, Galloway argued they were unequivocally found in the English Constitution. Radicals and moderates disagreed, arguing they were rooted in the Constitution as well as colonial charters and natural law. Galloway argued against natural law, sensing the dangers it presented. When Congress agreed to root liberty on a three-fold platform of the English Constitution, colonial charters, and natural law, Galloway felt a civil war brewing. He appreciated that this implied colonists remained part of the British Empire by choice rather than compulsion. And colonists argued that their rights were more important than remaining subjects of the British king. Once Congress had made the above decisions, it next had to determine how to get the Coercive Acts repealed.

The Articles of Association: Insisting on a Material Show of Patriotism

Congress’s shrewdest move to pressure Parliament into repealing the Coercive Acts is memorialized in the Articles of Association, a collection of fourteen resolves that lay out strategies for economic coercion, moral purification, and punishment for non-compliance. Colonists had resorted to economic coercion in the past, and over the course of the crisis years, material sacrifice became performative politics.

A painting of the young George Washington, who called for a boycott of the British in 1774.

Since petitioning the king and remonstrating to Parliament had both failed to redress colonial grievances, even George Washington believed Americans might best secure liberty by “starving …[British] Trade and manufactures.” Anyone openly purchasing British goods, Washington insisted, would become “objects of publick reproach.” Colonists again looked to a boycott to solve their political problems during the Coercive Acts Crisis. Throughout the crisis years, sacrifice and protest effectively became one and the same. And during this revealing process, another subtle but consequential transformation took root: What constituted a public expression of patriotism?

Most commenters defined patriotism as a subject’s disinterested love of country. Many felt this quality helped distinguish “the patriot from the Traytor.” One observer felt a true patriot’s commitment to the public more important than attachments to both family and friends. Patriotism, another essayist theorized, provided stability and glory to any civil society. True patriots, he declared, kept a “noble disinterested Love of the Public.” Those who refused to dedicate their head, heart, and hands to their country or acted from selfish principles, he added, must be treated as “a Foe of Society.” A foe of society… Let’s keep that in mind.

These early treatises reminded subjects of their personal obligations to the public weal and the disastrous consequences of private avarice. The degree of patriotism in any society, according to these writers (and presumably their readers), predicted its continued survival or imminent decay. For many observers, virtue united friends of the commonwealth and ostracized its internal enemies. But practicing vigilance and love of country remained conceptual and rhetorical at best.

By the 1760s, however, American subjects blended a material element into their understanding of patriotism that allowed colonists to parade their virtue. In protest to the Sugar Act, one commentator urged Americans to demonstrate patriotism by “renouncing foreign Toys and Fripperies of Dress” and using only locally-manufactured merchandise. Adorning oneself with American-made gloves, stockings, or other domestic materials, the writer continued, showcased the “Marks of Patriotism.” This new addition to American resistance, linking patriotism to the production and consumption of American goods and the rejection of British commodities, enabled colonists to publicize their political principles and showcase virtue.

As early as 1765, students graduating from the College of New Jersey connected patriotism with self-denial while protesting the Stamp Act. Recognizing the state of “their suffering Country,” each graduate spurned British wares and dressed in homespun clothing, fusing protest and virtue.

Women gathered to create “homespun” clothing, a key element of the boycott of British goods.

In 1770, one writer explained that Americans could express virtue by joining in a nonimportation agreement. He hoped towns and counties would create committees “appointed by the voice of the people” vested with the appropriate authority to enforce this association’s directives. He then reminded Americans that patriotism required action not words. Flying liberty colors, wearing red liberty caps and erecting liberty poles, he quipped, protected American freedoms no better than “mere playthings for children.” Another writer urged Americans to stop purchasing those items “marked with such badges of slavery.” In this highly charged political environment, resistance actors expected Americans to perform self-denial within the discerning gaze of the public.

Whigs sought to cure colonists of material indulgence as well as their addiction to what they considered debauched pastimes. These pursuits, many felt, diverted Americans from meaningful civic and spiritual engagement and deepened colonial dependence on English manufactures and luxuries. Many saw the results of this decadence and dependence in the perceived quickening moral decay of British North America. To redirect from this perilous path, Whigs looked to a unique synthesis of the classical tradition and Protestant dissent. An idealized version of the classical past inspired some to refashion colonial America as an interdependent community of material and cultural frugality guarded by a virtuous citizenry. Protestant dissent merged a series of complex beliefs into a politico-religious worldview informed largely by English Commonwealthmen and real Whigs.

Despite the conflicts and differences within the components of this worldview, however, emerge some principles to which American Whigs generally subscribed. Most advocated virtue and simplicity, agreeing that moral decay resulted from corruption and luxury. They also fiercely supported consensual government and the natural right to resistance. Combined, both classical virtue and Protestant dissent informed many colonists of desired behaviors that might regenerate private and political purity in colonial America.

“Frugality, Economy, and Industry”

What all of this effectively amounts to is that, in the decade leading up to the summer of 1774, alarmed colonists had already developed an intellectual framework of political resistance that relied on commitment to material sacrifice. During that same period, colonists’ understanding of patriotism had transformed from a conceptual focus on vigilance and character to measurable public acts of material self-denial. By March 1774, American Whigs added to this material dimension, asking supporters to forgo conspicuous displays of leisure and happiness so long as Boston suffered in the common cause. This plea invited colonists to perform patriotism in public by committing to frugality and refraining from certain social behaviors. Additionally, threatening to label neighbors who refused to commit to sacrifice as “enemies of American liberties” had already become commonplace when the First Continental Congress met in September 1774.

In sum, much of what Congress recommended within the Articles of Association had already been circulating in the resistance lexicon when that assembly finally convened. Against this backdrop, Congress drafted the Articles of Association. The Continental Association does not spell out an American creed per se, but it became the heart of a nationalized resistance effort and a covenant of sacrifice that built an American political community. This pact offered readers a retelling of the crisis years from the Whig perspective, with Congress confessing loyalty to the king before condemning Parliament for attempting to enslave colonists unlawfully by taxing and regulating Americans.

Richard Henry Lee, a key architect of the Articles of Association.

The Association is spread out over fourteen articles. Articles one through four effectively asked all Americans to adhere to non-importation and non-consumption of British and Irish imports, effective December 1, 1774 and, starting on September 10, 1775, refrain from exporting American resources (save rice to Europe). Articles five, six, nine and thirteen warned American merchants, vendors, and ship captains against smuggling illicit goods and price-gauging or risk social and economic ostracization. Article seven requested colonists limit the number of sheep slaughtered to encourage domestic wool production and reduce American dependence on British textiles. Article ten offered those who placed orders too late to cancel some options to lawfully rid themselves of their wares. And while each of the above articles asked colonists to refrain from some form of commercial activity, article eight focused on social behaviors and moral regeneration.

Although scholars recognize the commercial aspects of the Continental Association, the social concerns expressed by Congress have typically been glossed over with little attempt to rationalize how they fit into the logic of a nonintercourse movement. Yet when considering the Association as a code of conduct influenced by classical virtue and Protestant dissent, it is the boycott that suddenly fits into a broader scheme of commercial liberation and moral purification. The Continental Association’s eighth article urged adherents to practice “frugality, economy, and industry,” qualities considered virtuous in the classical world and in line with Protestant ethics. It next encouraged supporters to “discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation.”

The Association’s eighth article prohibited horse racing, cockfighting, gambling, theatergoing, extravagant funerals, and other pursuits that many felt polluted the moral purity Congress sought to revive. A strict focus on the economic elements of the Association renders Congress’s assault on these social pursuits puzzling. Refraining from attending a horse race or playing cards, for instance, hardly affected the livelihoods of British manufacturers or factory laborers. And no member of Parliament aligned with king and ministry would suddenly move to repeal the Coercive Acts after learning most Americans had suspended some or all of these activities. But appreciating the Association’s eighth article as a moral code designed to return simplicity to America satisfactorily connects the suspended commercial activities with those condemned cultural practices.

Horseracing, for example, put on public display what Tim Breen described as a gentlemen’s “competitiveness, individualism, and materialism.” Yet during the Coercive Acts Crisis, many Americans considered those particular characteristics harmful to the resistance effort and undesirable to the proposed colonial future of simplicity. Congress prohibited this practice and instead sought to promote cooperation, communitarianism, and austerity among colonists.

The secrecy, distrust, and corruption that characterized cockfighting divided rather than united neighborhoods and turned men into potential enemies rather than joining them in fellowship. Congress prohibited the practice, viewing it as an engagement that jeopardized the ethical character of Americans struggling against both Parliament and moral decay.

Theatergoing… Even before the Coercive Acts Crisis, some described theater culture as an assault on Christian values. Frequenting stage houses, they reasoned, wasted money most could not afford to spend. And women, particularly upper-class women ostensibly sheltered from theatrical obscenity, might become depraved themselves. “Is going to Plays and other theatrical Performances,” one concerned colonist asked, “consistent with the Profession and Practice of Christianity?” Some Americans felt theater also threatened virtue. Plays, they warned, turned men into women and all attendees into slaves too passive to defend life, liberty, and property.

One of the British dissipations the patriots sought to ban was cock-fighting, depicted here by the famous etcher William Hogarth.

Another commenter noted the “theater had a very considerable share in sinking the Athenians into effeminacy and indolence.” Delegates shared these concerns and Congress singled out theatergoing as a corruptive distraction that drained Americans of their virtue.

Funerals remained the one ritual Congress understood could not be banned, but they hoped to rehabilitate the practice. These public processions once hosted professional mourners, extravagant gift-giving, and a sort of choreographed grief. Congress hoped to restore both a material and emotional simplicity to this practice and thus transform private loss into public displays of politics.

And Congress hoped to regulate colonial behavior with its enforcement mechanism. Outlined in article eleven, Congress instructed towns and counties to create and elect members to Committees of Inspection and Observation. Not only did these new entities gain the authority to monitor their neighbors, Congress empowered them with the authority to publish violators’ names into local gazettes and cast them as “enemies of American liberty.” The article then urged all colonists to break off commercial and social interaction with such enemies.

In the fourteenth and final article, Congress warned all colonies that they too would be declared enemies if they violated the Association. These powerful denunciations threatened individuals and communities alike with commercial and social death should they refuse to contribute to Congress’s plans for reconciliation and moral regeneration. This form of social death resembles both the Roman punishment relegatio and the Puritan practice of exile which historian David Brown described as “communal purity.” Congress approved the Articles on October 20, 1774 and that assembly dissolved six days later.

Congress sought to create an environment where private decisions throughout British North America found expression in public spaces and colonists calculated their actions with the community’s interests (and potentially its wrath) in mind. Urging frugality, industry, and interdependence spoke to a desire to return colonial America to the classical simplicity and vigilant Christian community many felt had slipped away. Prohibiting ostentatious expressions of leisure signaled an attempt at removing some of the moral obstacles Congress felt stood in the way of realizing this vision. And casting individuals and potentially other colonies out of this new utopia became the clearest indication that supporters of the Continental Association sought to divide the mainland colonies into Americans and their enemies. Naturally, these so-called enemies viewed the Continental Association as a form of mob rule created and implemented by unauthorized forces.

Enforcing Patriotism

As communities began electing members to their respective committees of Inspection and Observation, the press took an active role in both legitimizing and mythologizing them. In fact, collectively this press narrative reported a culture of voluntary compliance, making support for the Association a heroic and patriotic contribution. Even those individuals who were corrected by Committees of Inspection and Observation were presented as temporarily misguided men who repented. This addition to the news cycle was likely designed to counter the loyalist narrative that these committees were akin to the Spanish Inquisition or worse.

These Committees patrolled their zones of austerity and, according to the collective print narrative, normalized Whig resistance and championed those suffering in the common cause. Colonists engaged this literature through reading, writing, and conversing about its charged content and connected as a literary citizenry with a shared sense of purpose. The burden of sacrifice, both real and imagined, forged a new political community. Committee elections grabbed hold of the news cycle, as papers throughout British North America described communities as supportive of “the eleventh Article of the General Congress.” Many of these accounts identified elected men by name, likely to put both a face on enforcement and to legitimize those bodies with the gravity of elections.

Tarandfeathering was one of the more extreme enforcement measures taken by the Inspection Committees.

Every colony but New York and Georgia officially adapted the Continental Association, yet even New Yorkers stopped trading with Britain while two parishes of Georgia independently adhered to Congress’s measures. Historian David Ammerman estimated that about 7,000 colonists were elected to hundreds of committees. Committeemen posted the Association in public buildings, went door to door to obtain signatures of support (and to take note of those who refused ); George Washington even nailed them to the doors of his church like a colonial-era Martin Luther.

Whig leaders went to great lengths to gain support for the Continental Association. Through their efforts, towns and counties became the political front lines where Whigs clashed with traditionalists over the Association’s enforcement. Family units, churches, and assemblies became nodal points connecting local resistance movements to a greater pan-colonial federation of sacrifice. During this heightened moment of partisanship, friendly gazette coverage more tightly joined these points into a single American resistance community.

Loyalists articulated a powerful counterpoint to American Whigs’ self-described (and self-serving) narrative. For example, Timothy Ruggles, a brigadier general in the Massachusetts militia, characterized Committees of Inspection and Observation as “banditti, whose cruelties surpass those of savages.” Another writer feared the Association’s eleventh article gave committeemen license to cast even respectable men as enemies of America. This terrifying form of majority rule, he warned, aimed at crushing dissent and trampling minority rights “without the shadow of a trial.” For the sake of liberty and posterity, he pleaded, “Let us shun an Association” designed to destroy us. This observer, clearly alarmed by what he considered a power grab by unconstitutional actors, recoiled at the thought of committeemen beyond regulation. Loyalists did not view these creatures of Congress as altruists pursuing imperial reconciliation and colonial regeneration. Rather, crown supporters likened these new vigilance committees to barbarians at the gates.

Even the sitting king, George III, took note of Congress and its committees. He condemned “all those Colonies who obey the mandate of Congress [the Continental Association] for non-importation, non-exportation, and non-Consumption.” The Hanoverian prince next condemned the dangerous “Spirit of Resistance” he saw sweeping through his mainland colonies, remarking “unlawful Combinations” threatened his kingdom’s commerce. For George III, Congress’s committees endangered the social tranquility and economic stability of the empire and warranted his reproach.

Even Boston, universally recognized by Whigs as ground zero to those suffering most for the common cause, experienced some political backlash over the Continental Association.

Loyalist Timothy Ruggles

General Timothy Ruggles published a loyalty association countering many of the points itemized in the Articles of Association. According to this counter-pact, signers joined to protect their lives, liberties, and property from unauthorized mobs and vowed to socialize and conduct business with anyone they pleased. They would not, according to this covenant, submit to the “pretended authority, of any Congress, Committee of Correspondence, or other unconstitutional Assemblies of Men.” In response, a critic of Ruggles’s initiative scoffed that a “few asses have been terrified into compliance with this infernal scheme.” Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee called for Ruggles to be beaten and dragged off to the “Tree where Traitors to their Country should all hang.” Despite this pushback, however, Congress’s initiatives and goals found broad support throughout the colonies.

Philadelphia’s Butcher’s Association came out in support of the Association, committing themselves to dramatically reduce slaughtering sheep to support the common cause. The Ladies Association of North Carolina also pledged themselves to Congress’s directives. New York City distillers advertised they would produce no spirits with British or West Indian molasses or syrups. Going beyond even Congress’s directives, inhabitants of Annapolis, Maryland discontinued all parties and balls while Boston suffered and those of South Carolina canceled all concerts and festivals for the same reason.

The press recorded dozens of funerals adhering to Congress’s strict protocol. Two examples are all we have time for. When forty-one-year-old Philadelphian Jane Knox died in November 1774, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported her interment as proceeding with strict compliance to the Association’s preferences. Conducted “in the plainest manner,” Knox’s burial offered neither pomp nor parade. To honor the deceased, the obituary simply asked “every good member of society, and friend to his country,” to imitate Knox’s example.

A more high-profile example involves the sudden death of President of Congress Assembled, Peyton Randolph. When he died in October 1775, John Adams remarked that Congress was to attend his funeral “in as much Mourning as our laws will permit.” Delegates were allowed to wear nothing but crape around their arms as Randolph’s remains were placed in a vault at Christ Church, only to be disinterred the following year and returned to Virginia at the behest of his “afflicted and inconsolable wife.”

American theater all but closed its doors at Congress’s directives. Yet artists still wrote plays, as colonists recognized that reading them in private could still prove instructive and educate resistance actors in the appropriate performative virtues with which to aspire.

Broadside by Committee of Inspection.

Committees spent plenty of their time roaming port cities, culling cargoes of incoming and outgoing vessels to prevent any violations of the Association. When the committee of Newburyport, Massachusetts, discovered a ship captain had sold several chests of tea, regulators confronted the mariner. He immediately turned over his profits “for the benefit of the Poor in this once flourishing, but now unhappy Town.” Once New York committeemen learned of the arrival of a vessel from Scotland loaded with prohibited cargo, they quickly seized the ship and instructed the captain to return to his port of origin, “agreeable to the tenth article of the continental association.” The captain, according to this account, complied without an utterance of resistance.

A similar scene unfolded at Philadelphia, when a vessel laden with wine arrived at port. Once the recipient of the illicit spirits learned of their arrival, he personally alerted his local committee. Before both the committeemen and a gathering crowd, he refused the cargo, sending the ship away “agreeable to the direction of the Congress.” The committee in Newport, Rhode Island boasted it had prevented dozens of sheep from being unlawfully shipped to Africa. It praised merchants for their conviction and remained convinced most colonists would carry on with “a punctual regard to the Association.” Gazette coverage portrayed committees as tireless groups patrolling their regulatory zones preventing smugglers from evading the Association.

These same reports also presented committeemen as exercising their authority courteously when possible and sternly when necessary.

By reporting so many of these instances as moments of brotherly interference, American newspapers portrayed vigilance committees as regulating their mistaken neighbors in an orderly and amicable fashion. Newspapers also gave violators the benefit of the doubt, portraying them as men who recognized their error and remained part of the community afterward. And while violators may or may not have actually repented, editors likely framed these encounters as redemptive tales to discredit loyalists’ claims that committees acted in a lawless and mob-like fashion.

Committees regulated business practices, monitored suspicious price increases, and threatened to tar and feather subjects who went out of their way to break the Association. In Ulster, New York, committee members publicly read a pamphlet supportive of the crown and claimed its author intended to “destroy the union.” They condemned that broadside and any similar writings to public burning. Going further still, they directed inhabitants to treat any author, printer, or peddler of such poisonous literature as “enemies of their country.” The committee chairman in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, described all critical literature as designed to “sow the seeds of discord” among Americans. He then directed the committee to collect any dangerous writings and have them “publickly burnt, in detestation.”

A Community of Citizens

Commitment to voluntary sacrifice brought together an American community. This private sacrifice manifested itself in the public arena. The Articles of Association provided the framework within which American colonists might transform from subjects to citizens by adhering to self-denial. By refraining from purchasing British wares or selling American resources, colonists hoped to apply financial pressure on English manufacturers who would then pressure Parliament for repeal. By asking Americans to forgo social engagements and entertainments, like theater, dances, horse racing, and gambling, Congress sought to return colonists to an elusive republican simplicity they felt British material culture and leisure had corrupted.

John Adams praised the First Continental Congress as the first expression of the “sovereign will of a free nation in America.”

A willingness to sacrifice for American liberty provided the building blocks of community that birthed a separate political identity for resistance actors. Colonists’ temporary commitment to material simplicity and moral purification ultimately transformed many British subjects into republican citizens. Once the likelihood of imperial reconciliation all but dried up, Whigs proved able to separate loyalty to homeland from loyalty to king. Most chose the former, opting to protect local identities and liberties from an empire they feared threatened both. These newly awakened Americans experienced this transformation as a process, however, and it came more quickly for some than others.

Patrick Henry claimed the final crisis had transformed New Yorkers, New Englanders and Southerners loosely into one people, claiming “I am not a Virginian, but an America.” Silas Deane believed the crisis would force Americans to craft a new Constitution and join the union. Joseph Reed felt this emerging political community connected through their sincere desire to maintain their local identities. Thomas Jefferson claimed the Declaration of Independence said nothing new about the American community, as it only declared “a fact which already exists.” James Madison explicitly noted the Continental Association became “the method used among us to distinguish friends from foes.”

More than two decades after signing the Declaration of Independence, President John Adams penned a statement to the federal senate remarking on the death of George Washington. After commending the late president’s virtue, the second chief executive reflected on the spirit of union and shared identity he felt had formed around those suffering at Boston back in 1774.

Washington once belonged to “that memorable league of the continent in 1774,” eulogized Adams, that “first expressed the sovereign will of a free nation in America.” For President Adams, and many others, those who joined in sacrifice during the Coercive Acts Crisis transformed into a new community and offered the earliest expressions of political sovereignty. They became, from the president’s perspective, the first American citizens. The Continental Association, for Whig actors, breathed life into a new citizenry and transformed royal subjects into republican citizens.

*Shawn David McGhee received his PhD from Temple University in Philadelphia. He is an educator and adjunct professor of history in the Philadelphia Metropolitan area.


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