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“For a Noble Man, a Prince”: Images and Identity in Colonial America

Phyllis Hunter, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Paul Staiti, Mount Holyoke College

Historical Background

Before the American Revolution (1775-1783), Britain controlled thirteen colonies along the Atlantic seaboard in North America, from New Hampshire to Georgia. At that time, populations in colonial America were already diverse (comprising Germans, Africans, Irish, Swedes, Dutch, and Native Americans, in addition to the predominant English). All those peoples were, at least technically, under the jurisdiction of English law and English governors, and they were all subjects, willing or not, of the monarch, King George III. The non-English populations tried to retain, as much as possible, the customs and behaviors that marked their own ethnicities. Similarly, the English in America were interested in continuing with and conforming to the manners, dress, cuisine, and overall culture of England.

By the mid-eighteenth century, colonial American towns, especially those on the seaboard such as Salem, Boston, Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Charleston, witnessed the growth of a prosperous merchant elite. At the same time, increasing inequality in wealth created a relatively poor class of laborers in those port cities. As the colonial economy expanded, shipping contacts to the West Indies and across the Atlantic to England and Spain brought increasing profits to colonial ports. These same shipping routes also brought goods: sugar and molasses from the West Indies; wine, brandy, fruits, and olive oil from Spain; manufactured goods from Engand; and tea, porcelain, spices, silk, and fine cotton textiles from India via England. Colonists used these luxury goods to fashion their identity as Anglo-Americans and to announce their social status to their neighbors.

When interpreting this period, some historians stress the tension among colonists that arose from the increasing wealth and power of affluent merchants and professionals.. Other have argued that through a shared culture of consumer goods, colonists began to see themselves as a united group, taking on an American identity that crossed local and regional boundaries and eventually would make possible a unified resistance to British tyranny.

The beginning of armed battle in 1775 (it could be argued that the Revolution was really a civil war between Britons), followed by the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which politically defined the new United States, might suggest that Americans had been drifting further and further away from England for decades. But in fact America in 1770 was culturally more like England than it had ever been before. British financing of the French and Indian war (1754-63) poured large sums of money into the pockets of the merchant elite living in American port cities. In turn, with this money American merchants, who were deeply connected to England, tried to define themselves as Britons. Their identification with Englishness was so great that for them-and the middling classes, too, such as lawyers and storekeepers-there was an ever-present problem of how to perform their Englishness accurately, even though they were 4000 miles distant from London (a distance that required a month’s passage by boat). Since they could not hold titles, such as Lord, Sir, or Lady, that could quickly define class and character, Americans were compelled to demonstrate, or fashion, their British selves through visual means. That might involve importing silver tea sets from England and porcelain tea cups from China, learning the most up-to-date forms of etiquette, or commissioning artists to portray them in ways that spoke to their status and ambitions.