What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Some excellent pieces of sculpture in relieve of Lord CAMDEN and Mr. PITT.”
In the wake of the American Revolution, a variety of artists created and marketed items that commemorated American statesmen and military heroes and depicted significant events. In so doing, they participated in creating a national culture that celebrated the new republic while uniting geographically dispersed citizens in common acts of consumption and veneration. They helped to cultivate a sense of patriotism rooted in a distinct American identity.
Prior to the Revolution, artists also produced and sold items that shaped national identity and allegiance. In the summer of 1766, colonists in Virginia could purchase “some excellent pieces of sculpture in relieve of Lord CAMDEN and Mr. PITT” created by a “Celebrated artist in London.” Camden and Pitt were British politicians who had gained popularity in the colonies due to their opposition to the Stamp Act, arguing that it was not constitutional to impose taxes on the colonies without their consent and that consent was only possible with representation. Camden was one of the few who opposed the Declaratory Act as well. From the perspective of Americans who opposed the Stamp Act, Camden and Pitt truly understood the appropriate and just relationship between Great Britain and the colonies. The advertisement for the sculpture in relieve pieces described them as “names which will be ever dear to AMERICA,” but offered no further explanation. None was needed. Any colonists who read the newspaper or listened to discussions taking place in public places already knew of the accomplishments of Camden and Pitt.
This advertisement and the works it marketed envisioned American political and cultural identity in complicated ways. Americans still thought of themselves as Britons in 1766. At the time, few wanted to sever ties; instead, they sought to benefit from all the protections and advantages that were supposed to be inherent in being part of the British Empire. By purchasing sculpture in relievo pieces of Camden and Pitt and displaying them in their homes, colonists could confirm their allegiance to Britain and the ideals of its political system while simultaneously affirming their particular concerns as Americans. They did not need to prioritize one over the other. The two found themselves in balance rather than opposition to each other, a situation that would change dramatically over the course of the next two decades.