Social, Economic, and Spiritual Changes in Revolution-Era America

In April 1775, the American Revolution began on the battlefields of Lexington, Massachusetts, after years of tension with Great Britain. It is easy to attribute the start of the war to merely discontent with British tax policy, and the lack of colonial representation in the British parliament. However, the American Revolution became a deeply personal war, as a result of changes in the economic, social, and spiritual lives of the nearly American people. The way people consumed goods, and which goods they consumed, became a public statement as to where their political loyalties lied. In addition, the new Baptist faith began spreading what would become revolutionary ideas to its followers. In short, there was more to this war than “No taxation without representation”.

In the decades before the revolution, the colonists had become more and more reliant on goods from Great Britain. The quality of most British goods far surpassed that of locally made ones, and a British stamp was seen as a seal of status and luxury (Breen 85). As England expanded its market to America, more choices and options became available. For example, 1720s New York newspapers advertised about fifteen imported items a month. By the 1770s, there were up to nine thousand different goods (Breen 80). This created a feeling of freedom and independence among Americans; they felt they had the freedom and right to choose what they purchased out of a multitude of options. However, British Navigation Laws kept the reigns of the American market tightly held by England. Legally, America could only export to England, and England made sure nothing from outside the British Empire reached America. Making a purchase was “a private act, one primarily associated with one’s own social status within a community or household (Breen 86).” Very few colonists saw anything political in their purchases. In the 1770s, the idea of using consumerism to convey political views emerged in Virginia. The colonists had grown frustrated with British control of the markets, and of course its dreaded taxes. They felt Britain had no right to tax them, because they had no say to the matter in the British parliament. One of the results of this discontentment was political consumerism in the form of the boycott, which became a “powerful social metaphor of resistance” (Breen 76). British goods were blatant reminders of England’s tight control over its colonies, and boycotting these goods became a symbol of morality and rights. It was about showing discontentment towards a power that had come to dominate the markets, and dominate the colonists’ lives. In roughly three decades, the social connotations of consuming goods had radically changed, from being largely personal, to being a public political statement. A British seal no longer meant luxury, but apathy and

A woman making homespun fabric, a fabric that became popular during the years America boycotted British goods.

A woman making homespun fabric, a fabric that became popular during the years America boycotted British goods.

disloyalty. Public statements of defiance connected communities, as townsfolk made public oaths forswearing British goods. In the words of Breen, “By pledging to support non-consumption they reaffirmed their moral standing in the community. They demonstrated that they were not ‘enemies to their country’—a country that in fact they were only just beginning to define.” The colonies had never been united by a social cause in such a way before. A large group that experienced a lot of pre-revolution social change was young people. They, like their parents, were encouraged to denounce British goods. Boycotting created an active youth, one with something to believe in. This motivated them to go into battle, and become involved with the political and economic activity of the country that changing around them (Breen 94).  One dynamic these various economic and social changes brought was increased tension with Great Britain. Colonists were now openly defying the British, something they did not do prior to this shift in consumerism. In addition, the social changes that accompanied this shift brought the colonists together in a way they never had been, through an imagined community. Colonists from Massachusetts to the Carolinas now had a common motive, as well as a common enemy to team up against. This united mentality against British tyranny powered America through the war, and this mentality emerged from the colonists’ boycotts against the British.

As economics and consumerism became more personal, so did religion. The Baptist denomination of Christianity began to gain steam in Virginia, causing conflict and creating a new religious dynamic. The Baptist community was a community away from the larger world, and a form of escape. “The converts were proffered some escape from the harsh realities of disease, debt, overindulgence, and deprivation, violence and sudden death, which were the common lot of small farmers (Isaac 353-355).” In addition, the Baptist faith was far more emotional than the Church of England. Instead of Anglican chants, there was singing, and powerful sermons that were meant to make experiencing God an emotional one (Isaac 355). Services with sometimes thousands of attendees would grow so intense that the worshippers could not help but yell or raise their hands as they were swept up in the emotion.  The Baptists sought to challenge the gentry, and disapproved of activities like drinking and cockfighting. They found it not as an expression of power, but a form of destruction to society. At its core, the Baptist leaders desired a “tighter, more effective system of values and of exemplary conduct to be established and maintained within the ranks of the common folk (Isaac 358).” One of the most extraordinary things the Baptists did was welcome slaves into their community. Converting the lowest members of colonial society was a way to create the systems of values and conduct the Baptists desired. They wanted even slaves to live with a moral compass, and contribute to their community. The Baptist faith was an emotional, community-based faith. Members called each other “brother”, and “sister”, giving the relationships within the faith a sense of egalitarianism. In addition, the church had elections, and often a motion would not go through unless everyone agreed. Often, its converts would be low-level farmers, who wished to find a more behaved, and more equal-feeling community.  These ideas of equality and community voice found their way into the American Revolution. In reality, the America that emerged after the revolution was a warm, united country, much closer to the Baptist communities that the Anglican founding fathers so despised. The Baptist faith also proved the power of emotional rhetoric, which soon overflowed Revolution America. Authors and leaders began to see the power of emotion, and its power to unify. Emotional rhetoric encouraged patriotism and spread Revolutionary fervor across America. As the religious dynamic of Virginia became more emotional, communal, and united, the new country’s dynamic did the same. America became a cohesive community, emotionally involved with the cause of liberty, the cause that their sons and husbands were fighting for.

The new ideas and practices that arose due to changes in consumer culture, social life, and spirituality deeply affected the lives of the colonists before and during the American Revolution. Looking at these changes gives us clues into the more complex beginnings of America’s war for independence. The war has much more causation than “people didn’t like taxes”. There is a wider range of reasons; the fledgling country was changing, becoming more united and ready for autonomy. As American plunged into its war for independence, the soon-to-be Americans fought with defiance and emotion that had never been seen in them before

Comments are closed.