What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A DISSERTATION ON THE RECIPROCAL ADVANTAGES OF A PERPETUAL UNION BETWEEN GREAT BRITAIN and her AMERICAN COLONIES.”
Robert Wells stocked a variety of items at “the great Stationary and Book Shop on the Bay” in Charleston. Among the wares he imported from England, he first listed “LARGE and elegant prints of Mr. PITT and LORD CAMDEN,” members of Parliament considered friendly to the American cause during the Stamp Act crisis. Wells concluded this advertisement by devoting significant space to a book printed in Philadelphia, a volume which included four “DISSERTATIONS” on the “RECIPROCAL ADVANTAGES OF A PERPETUAL UNION BETWEEN GREAT-BRITAIN and her AMERICAN COLONIES.” The first, authored by John Morgan, won “Mr. Sargent’s Prize Medal,” awarded at commencement exercises for the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania).
This advertisement provides valuable insight concerning how most colonists interpreted their relationship with Great Britain in the first months of 1767, still fairly early in the imperial crisis that eventually – over the course of more than a decade – led to the colonies declaring independence. One of the challenges of teaching about the American Revolution lies in helping students understand that it was not an instantaneous event but rather a long process that involved a transition from resistance to Parliamentary overreach while seeking redress of grievances to, eventually, revolutionary rhetoric and actions when Americans determined that they had exhausted all other options.
In early 1767 continued to underscore the “RECIPROCAL ADVANTAGES” of being part of the British Empire. In his “DISSERTATION,” Morgan ranked commerce and trade among some of the most significant advantages. By this time the Stamp Act had been passed and repealed, in large part due to the protests and petitions of the colonists but also thanks to advocacy by merchants and politicians, like Pitt and Camden, in England. The Americans had discovered means for having their grievances addressed, though they did not particularly care for the Declaratory Act that accompanied repeal of the Stamp Act. Still, the rupture in relations did not seem insurmountable. Indeed, most Americans believed it foolish not to attempt to make amends.
The “DISSERTATIONS” written and published in Philadelphia served to cement colonists’ understanding of their place and privileges within the British Empire, but they also reminded English observers of the benefits of amicable relations between parent country and colonies. This publication simultaneously shored up British identity among colonists while alerting those in England that it was not in anyone’s best interest to attempt to take advantage of the colonies, a warning that Parliament did not heed when it promulgated the Townshend Acts later in 1767.
Return once again to the prints of Pitt and Camden that led the list of goods Wells stocked. They set the tone for the rest of the advertisement, especially the “DISSERTATIONS” that appeared at the end. Colonists considered themselves Britons, so much so that Wells expected consumers would display images of English politicians – especially those who understood and advocated for the proper sort of relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies – in public and private spaces. Most Americans had not yet been radicalized in favor of independence in early 1767, at least not according to the merchandise Robert Wells expected to sell at his shop in Charleston.