What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Doing so was contrary to the Non-Important Agreement.”
The success of the nonimportation agreements adopted during the imperial crisis depended not only on the cooperation of merchants and consumers but also on surveillance and enforcement, both formal and informal. Committees of merchants and traders devised the nonimportation agreements and then set about policing themselves, but colonists also observed their friends and neighbors to assess whether they complied and, when necessary, shame them in public and deprive them of business as punishment for not adhering to the agreement.
The June 26, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal carried an advertisement that testified to the stakes of following the nonimportation agreement. It told a story about Peter Clopper, “Merchant of this City, whose Zeal for promoting he good of his Country, has never been called in Question.” To that end, he was one of the first merchants in New York to sign the nonimportation agreement. About two weeks before the advertisement ran in the New-York Journal, Clopper traveled to Philadelphia to attend to “Business of Importance” and, while there, purchased “one Piece of Callico, two Pieces of coloured, and one Piece of black Persian.” He did not intend to sell these fabrics in New York, instead acquiring them “principally for the Use of his Family.” Still, this violated the nonimportation agreement, as Clopper soon realized. He then packaged up the textiles and sent them back to Philadelphia, yet that was not the end of atoning for his transgression. He voluntarily approached the Committee of Inspection into the Importation of Goods to relay the entire story and received credit for his honesty since the infraction “otherwise in all Probability never [would have] come to Light.”
In response to this incident, the committee determined that Clopper’s purchase was an “involuntary Transaction” that “ought not to be imputed to him as a Crime.” Having returned the merchandise and then presented himself to the committee of his own accord, he was “intitled to the Favour of the Committee for his candid Behaviour.” Yet Clopper did not seek the “Favour of the Committee” alone. He also wished to defend and maintain his reputation among the residents of New York, colonists who were also current and prospective customers. The introduction to the account of Clopper’s indiscretion and remedy depicted the alternatives. On the one hand, “it must afford great Satisfaction to every Friend of the American Colonies” to know the “Indignation and Abhorrence” that would be incurred by anyone who “willfully and personally” behaved in a manner “to counteract the Agreement entered into” for the “common Preservation” of the entire colony. On the other hand, “it must also give them Pleasure to know how cautious and fearful Individuals are of incurring the Censure of the Public.”
The merchants and traders who signed and enforced the nonimportation agreement were not Clopper’s only concern when he took action to fix his supposedly inadvertent mistake. He also worried about maintaining his reputation among the general public and avoiding the “Censure of the Public” that could spell ruin for his business. Yet it was not only commerce at stake. Clopper realized that his error could also affect his social relationships with friends and neighbors who supported the nonimportation agreement. When it came to adhering to that pact, political acts had personal ramifications. The purpose of the advertisement in the New-York Journal was to diffuse those ramifications for Clopper, given his eager cooperation once he realized his transgression, as well as remind others of the consequences if they willfully tried to evade the nonimportation agreement.