What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Ah—Liberty! …. An empty sound alone remains of thee.”
John Mason, an upholsterer, did not merely seek to sell paper hangings (or wallpaper) and bedding materials when he placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal in the summer of 1770. His entire advertisement was a short sermon about the current political crisis and the fate of the nonimportation agreement adopted by the merchants of Philadelphia in response to the duties imposed on certain imported goods by the Townshend Acts. All of those duties had been recently repealed, with the exception of the duty on tea, prompting merchants in New York to bring an end to their nonimportation agreement and begin trading with English merchants once again. Residents of other cities and towns debated whether they would continue their own boycotts. The nonimportation agreement in Philadelphia was on the verge of collapse. It came to an end on September 20.
Mason apparently did not agree with the direction he saw the merchants and traders in his city heading. He used his advertisement to encourage the continuation of the nonimportation agreement as well as condemn the merchants in New York for so hastily resuming trade as soon as they heard about the repeal of most of the duties. The nonimportation agreements were intended to stay in effect until Parliament repealed all the duties, yet the duties on tea remained.
Mason began his advertisement with a play on words, stating that he “STILL prays for liberty to inform the public, that he would be glad to dispose of his property.” He implied that all liberty was at stake, not just his ability to hawk goods in the marketplace. He deployed the same turn of phrase in another advertisement that doubled as a political lecture a year earlier. In his new epistle, he informed prospective customers that he sold papers hangings “not lately imported,” making clear that he continued to abide by the nonimportation agreement, as well as variety of bedding materials that he presumably made in his upholstery shop. “The utility of these beds,” he proclaimed, “is not duly attended to, as they say, by sleeping on them.” If the purpose of beds was not for sleeping then what was it? Mason believed his bedding materials served a more important purpose as symbols of American liberty. Consumers should purchase them to demonstrate their own commitment to the cause, especially during “this crisis, when our Liberty is tottering, like our Neighbour’s Resolutions*.” Just in case readers missed his meaning, an asterisk confirmed that he critiqued recent actions in “*NEW YORK.:”
To underscore his point, he inserted a short poem for the edification of both merchants and consumers in Philadelphia:
Ah—Liberty! How loved, how valued once, avail thee not
To whom retail’d, or by whom begot,
An empty sound alone remains of theee,
And its all thy one pretended Votaries‡ shall be—
Mason contended that liberty had been valued for a time, but all that remained of it was an “empty sound” because its “pretended Votaries,” the merchants in New York, prematurely abandoned the cause by withdrawing from the nonimportation agreement before all the duties had been repealed. He inserted two more lines of commentary about those “pretended Votaries‡.” Mason accused them of a “sad blunder, never to be mended” and accused them of causing the entire enterprise to fail. “This one bad step, the contest ended,” he lamented. Merchants in New York and other cities saw the repeal of most of the duties on imported goods as a victory. They believed their nonimportation agreement had served its purpose (or at least well enough to return to business and resume trading). Mason disagreed. Until Parliament repealed the duties on tea, bringing an end to the boycotts was nothing more than capitulation. Parliament had not met the terms that stated the nonimportation agreements would remain in effect until all the duties were repealed. Mason took a harder line than many other colonists, using a newspaper advertisement to express his views to the general public.