The Changing Colonial Identity

The colonies are portrayed as an Indian, while England is portrayed as a dignified lady. From:×279/the-colonies-reduced-political-cartoon.jpg

At the conclusion of the Seven-Years War,(known in America as the French and Indian War) the British were deeply in debt, and they needed to increase their revenue[1]. One simple way to do this was to tax all British subjects, including those in the American colonies. However, the colonists felt that this was a violation of their rights as British subjects since they did not have representatives in Parliament and were thus being taxed without their consent. The result was not only indignation, but a shift in the view of what it meant to be an American. Although the colonists had previously seen themselves as British subjects, outrage over the policies of the British Parliament caused colonists to define themselves as uniquely American through their actions, their dress and the ways that they viewed themselves.

Before taxing the American colonists, the British had allowed the colonies to be largely autonomous, and the sudden change in policy came as a shock. Even though the colonists were actually being taxed less than the subjects in Britain, they were outraged by the very principle of taxes, and many colonists decided to boycott British goods to protest[2]. However, convincing enough people to boycott British goods in all of the colonies was difficult because many of the colonies shared different histories and beliefs as well as different climates[3]. To help unite the colonies against the common foe of the British Parliament, a series of distinctly American ideals began to emerge. People that would become known as the “Founding Fathers” such as John Adams began to ridicule luxury and instead stress the importance of ideals like virtue and knowledge. Similarly, colonists where urged to give up frugal things like “horse-racing, gambling, cockfighting and theatrical performances”[4] and to instead work to support American agriculture and industry.[5]

A woman making thread for homespun cloth. From:

One way to support American industry was through dress. Although many of the poorer colonists would make and wear their own “homespun” clothes, the elites before the “Intolerable Acts” tended to imitate British styles and clad themselves in expensive textiles like silk.[6] However, to support American production, many elites began to wear homespun, even though they could afford British imports. This was considered fortunate by some such as John Adams because he believed that if Sumptuary Laws were reinstated, then the outright rebellion of women might ensue. Ironically, some elites clad their slaves in British imported cloth even when they were wearing homespun cloth, reinforcing the notion that they were wearing homespun cloth for purely political reasons.[7]

In many cases, elites had also been producing homespun and selling it for profit before the boycotts, but after, they began wearing what they produced to make a political statement. In addition, the increase in the production of homespun gave women “a definable political place” in the time leading up the Revolutionary War. Large public gatherings that produced homespun were called Spinning Bees, and these gatherings became hubs where women could openly discuss and share political ideals[8]. However, wearing homespun was not the only way that colonists could use dress to differentiate themselves from Britain.

Dressing like Indians was another way that colonists where able to differentiate themselves from the English. Although many colonists considered themselves to be British subjects, their physical location as well as their different ideals and values made it easier to feel that they were different from the British. Feeling less like the British was accompanied by the notion of a distinctly American identity. Not only did dressing like Indians make the colonist feel more native to America, but it also helped to strengthen the ideal of “the refusal of a decadent and corrupt civilization” because Indians were often conceived as pure and simple.[9] Such sentiments spread themselves throughout the colonies in different ways.

An artist’s rendition of Tammany. From:

In Pennsylvania, colonists celebrated Tammany, the leader of the Delaware tribe that granted William Penn “access to river and woods” of Pennsylvania.[10] These celebrations were fairly comparable to the European tradition of carnivals and they were both socially and politically charged. At carnivals, the accepted social order was turned upside down and divisions between upper and lower classes would be blurred as people from across the social hierarchy would come together to enjoy marry making and welcome in the new while ushering out the old. This was often physically represented by burning representations of the old monarch to evoke a literal image of the concept of the death and the rebirth. [11] In the specific case of the Tammany celebration, Tammany’s literal death was closely associate with the legend that he would one day rise again, and the celebration was aptly observed during the spring when the Earth and its vegetation was literally being reborn after a winter of being lifeless. Furthermore, Tammany’s death by fire, a suicide that was committed to prevent him from becoming a burden in his old age, caused him to become a phoenix-like metaphor that replaced the metaphorical burning of European monarchs. Thus, the traditional European celebrations were changed to create uniquely American celebrations that allowed to colonists to differentiate themselves from the English. [12]

A rendition of what the Mast Tree Riot might have looked like. From: data:image/

Although New England prohibited many celebrations and festivals, there were still instances where New Englanders dressed as Indians. Most of these instances were in response to instances of “misrule” where laws that were customarily not followed suddenly became enforced.[13] One of these more famous instances was the Mast Tree Riot in New Hampshire where David Dunbar (the king’s surveyor-general) attempted to start enforcing the law that all large trees be requisitioned to be made into masts for English ships. Many of the towns that made paper were greatly angered by this change in governmental policy because it would hinder their paper making industry. As a result on town decided to don Indian style blankets and feathers while using war clubs to physically beat the party of men send to enforce the change in policy. This tradition of dressing up to threaten officials came from a long-standing tradition in England where citizens would illegally poach on private lands. When gamekeepers or government officials attempted to prosecute the poachers, they would often be threatened by large mobs in blackface and usually decided to drop the accusations. In terms of practice, the Mast Tree Riot is fairly similar to this European practice of threatening officials, however, the distinctiveness of the dress that was chosen in this instance provided the rioters with a new, distinctly American, identify.[14]

The shifts in values and dress that swept through the American colonies in the time leading up to the Revolutionary War resulted in the birth of an American identity. While some may argue that this identity was incomplete as it was neither truly British nor truly Indian, it was something that was able to unite the diverse colonies in common cause against Britain. Without this uniting identity, it is quite possible that resistance against Britain would never have been widespread and coordinated enough to spark the American Revolution, and the United Sates might never have existed.



[1] Stillo, Stephanie. Lecture, Lexington, November 19, 2014.

[2] Ibid

[3] Auslander, Leora. “The Politics of Silk and Homespun.” In Cultural Revolutions: Everyday Life and Politics in Britain, North America and France. Berkley: University of California Press, 2009.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Deloria, Philip. “Patriotic Indians and Identities of the Revolution.” In Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid


Works Cited:

Auslander, Leora. “The Politics of Silk and Homespun.” In Cultural Revolutions: Everyday Life and Politics in Britain, North America and France. Berkley: University of California Press, 2009.

Deloria, Philip. “Patriotic Indians and Identities of the Revolution.” In Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Stillo, Stephanie. Lecture, Lexington, November 19, 2014.