Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Selling Empire and the 1760s Textile Debate

· September 24th, 2018 · No Comments

Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.

by Abby Chandler

This particular story begins at the Newport Historical Society in the summer of 2005. I had just completed the first year of a doctoral program which would result in a dissertation on sexual misconduct trials in colonial New England and my first book, Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750: Steering Toward England. I was in Rhode Island because I was interning at the NHS and my supervisor had asked me to create a first person interpretive program for a Loyalist named Martin Howard who had lived in their Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house. Among his multiple endeavors, in 1764 Howard helped found an organization known as the Newport Junto, whose members who supported the expansion of the British Empire in the mid-eighteenth century by advocating for a wide range of political causes and interests. They believed the solution for Rhode Island’s bitter partisan politics was for Rhode Island to become a royal colony instead of a chartered colony. They supported the Sugar and Stamp Acts. They published a long series of letters signed by O.Z. in the Newport Mercury in 1764 and 1765 campaigning for home textile production in Rhode Island.

In short, exactly the sorts of causes you would expect a group of self-respecting advocates for the British Empire to be supporting in the mid-1760s. Wait a minute—what did you say about home textile production? I had just read T.H. Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution, which argues that colonial protests against the Townshend Acts, including advocating for home textile production, helped galvanize colonists from various socioeconomic backgrounds and led directly to the coalition needed to begin the war in 1775. So why was this group of men, who would all become Loyalists, advocating for home textile production? This question intrigued me partly because it seemed such an unlikely confluence of interests and partly because my earlier career as a living history interpreter had left me as interested in the objects of the past as its written documents. I had spent years learning how to spin and weave so I was fascinated by the technical details embedded in the O.Z. letters and wanted to know more.

Astute readers among you will have noticed that sexual misconduct trials conducted before the year 1750 have very little to do with Loyalists in the 1760s. While you would be correct in thinking this, I will note that the connecting thread (it is very hard to write about textile production without making bad puns) between my first and second book projects is that both are about the ways in which people constructed their dual identities as British subjects and North American colonists. I may have stumbled onto a question in need of an answer, but I still had a dissertation to write on a completely different topic.

Flash forward eleven years to the summer of 2016. I was now a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell whose home office holds three bookcases, a desk, and a loom, and it was finally time to return to Martin Howard and Loyalist arguments for home textile production. I headed back to the Newport Historical Society and the O.Z. letters and was again struck by how thorough they are. Some explained how to grow and process hemp for making sails and rope. Others discussed best practices for raising sheep and making stockings and other woolen garments while still more discussed raising flax for linen. Most noticeably, the O.Z. letters exhorted Rhode Island colonists to “lay aside foreign Superfluities” and practice economy and frugality in terms virtually identical to the ones used by Patriot colonists a few years later. And, in time, I knew all about the Newport Junto and what their twenty articles had to say about the benefits of home textile production. I also knew who their Patriot neighbors were and had read the twenty-three articles they would publish in the Newport Mercury on the same topic between 1766 and 1771.

The problem was that I was no closer to answering the question of why and how textile production became such a touchstone for Rhode Island colonists across the rapidly growing political divide. I had a fascinating topic and no idea what to do with it. Then a book published a few months earlier by the Omohundro Institute came to my rescue. Jonathan Eacott’s Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830 (2016) examines the British Empire in its formative years and makes the argument that the importation of goods from India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries transformed the Anglo-American Atlantic world. To understand the British North American colonies, Eacott reminds us, it is first necessary to understand that they functioned within a global world.

The emergence of trade with the Middle East and Asia during the medieval period had exposed British consumers to brightly printed silks and cottons and led to the founding of the British East India Company which expanded both its territorial control and its importation of Indian goods into Britain throughout the seventeenth century. Eacott writes that “the popularization of calicoes and other India goods between the 1660s and the 1690s altered the Company, English fashion [and] ideas about India [as] India cottons, silks, furniture, and curiosities supported and shaped a broadly imperial fashion and consumption system” (71). Textile producers in India were encouraged to produce printed fabrics specifically designed for the British market, which proved enormously popular both in Britain and in the British North American colonies.

Eacott then documents the impact these products had on the Anglo-American Atlantic world. Domestic wool and linen producers in Britain were increasingly challenged by the flood of cheap, colorful imported fabrics on the British textile market. Furious about the threat to their livelihoods, weavers, spinners, dyers, shepherds, and farmers sent multiple petitions to Parliament, staged riots in the streets, and, on occasion, assaulted women wearing India cotton for not dressing in domestic fabrics. For their part, politicians, writers, and ministers worried about the socio-economic dangers that the newly abundant fabrics posed for British society. Would readily available printed cottons make it possible for poor women to pass for their wealthy counterparts in the street? What impact would this have on Britain’s rigid class system? And would thousands of people be left out of work? These concerns led to the passing of the First and Second Calico Acts in 1700 and 1721 which restricted the importation of all goods from “Persia, China or East India” into the United Kingdom.

Most importantly for my research interests, Eacott also documents the complications the Calico Acts posed for British North American colonists. Advocates for the British East India Company secured a loophole in the Second Calico Act which allowed British consumers living in North America to purchase imported fabrics, as long as those fabrics were shipped (and taxed) through London, rather than coming directly from India. This loophole reinforced geographic categories of identity within the British Empire, while raising the question of whether people of British descent who lived in North America were colonists or true subjects. Eacott writes that the “acts, regulations, and enforcement efforts surrounding calico increasingly differentiated and structured people in Britain, India, and the Atlantic colonies as producers and consumers and as different types of producers and consumers subject to different moral and economic arguments” (116). If the Second Calico Act did indeed mean that British subjects who lived in Britain were producers of cloth and British colonists who lived in North America were consumers, then the ability to produce cloth and the right to the protections of British subjecthood were inextricably linked.

Now the similarities that I had first noticed in 2005 between the writings of the Loyalist and Patriot colonists finally made sense to me. Both sides saw connections between home textile production and the privileges and protections of British subjecthood. Both sides also saw home textile production as a necessary virtue in a rapidly expanding world where imported calicos and silks tempted their wives and daughters (and, no doubt, themselves). There are differences surfacing through the Newport Mercury textile articles which hint at the explosions to come, but for the moment in the 1760s, Loyalists and Patriots alike were eager to demonstrate their right to the privileges and protections of British subject hood through their identities as textile producing Britains.

Nearly all scholars wonder about projects left unfinished or on hold and why we pursue one historical question but not another. The decision in 2005 to stay with my original dissertation topic and to wait to pursue Loyalist textile advocates felt like the right one because I had already invested so much time and thought and energy in tracking down my court trials. A decade later, it still feels like the right decision, albeit for very different reasons. The OI’s publication of Jonathan Eacott’s Selling Empire in 2016 and its championing of “Vast Early America” has widened the scholarly world around me. Had I written about this topic in 2005, I doubt I ever could have done it justice. Writing now, I can place Rhode Island’s 1760s textile debate in its broader contexts, both geographic and cultural. Like us, the people we study lived in a global world and we owe it to them to write about that world in all its complexities.

Abby Chandler is an Associate Professor of Early American History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is currently working on her second book project examines the use of English legal traditions in political rebellions during the 1760s and this essay comes out of that research.

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