Shared literature, style, and consumption linked the British colonies with the home country. 

Overview

  • The development of the Atlantic economy in the eighteenth centuries allowed American colonists access to more British goods than ever before.
  • The buying habits of both commoners and the rising colonial gentry fueled the consumer revolution, creating even stronger ties with Great Britain by means of a shared community of taste and ideas.

The colonial gentry

British Americans’ reliance on indentured servitude and slavery to meet the demand for colonial labor helped give rise to a wealthy colonial class—the gentry—in the Chesapeake tobacco colonies and elsewhere. To be genteel—a member of the gentry—meant to be refined, free of all rudeness. The British American gentry modeled themselves on the English aristocracy, who embodied the ideal of refinement and gentility.
A painted portrait shows William Byrd II posing with an elbow on a mantelpiece.
Hans Hysing, portrait of William Byrd II, circa 1724. Image credit: Figure 3 in "An Empire of Slavery and the Consumer Revolution," OpenStax College, CC BY 4.0.
American aristocrats built elaborate mansions to advertise their status and power. William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia, exemplifies the colonial gentry. A wealthy planter and slaveholder, he is known for founding Richmond and for his diaries documenting the life of a gentleman planter.
The diary of William Byrd, a Virginia planter, provides a unique way to better understand colonial life on a plantation:
August 27, 1709
I rose at 5 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Josephus. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. I had like to have whipped my maid Anaka for her laziness but I forgave her. I read a little geometry. I denied my man G-r-l to go to a horse race because there was nothing but swearing and drinking there. I ate roast mutton for dinner. In the afternoon I played at piquet with my own wife and made her out of humor by cheating her. I read some Greek in Homer. Then I walked about the plantation. I lent John H-ch seven pounds in his distress. I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty . . .

The consumer revolution

One of the ways in which the gentry set themselves apart from others was through their purchase, consumption, and display of goods. An increased supply of consumer goods from England that became available in the eighteenth century led to a phenomenon called the consumer revolution.
Consumer products linked the colonies to Great Britain in real and tangible ways. Indeed, along with the colonial gentry, ordinary settlers in the colonies also participated in the frenzy of consumer spending on goods from Great Britain. Tea, for example, came to be regarded as the drink of the British Empire, with or without fashionable tea sets.

Newspapers, pamphlets and novels in the consumer revolution

The consumer revolution also made printed materials more widely available. Before 1680, for instance, no newspapers had been printed in colonial America. In the eighteenth century, however, a flood of journals, books, pamphlets, and other publications became available to readers on both sides of the Atlantic. This shared trove of printed matter linked members of the British Empire by creating a community of shared tastes and ideas.
Cato’s Letters, by Englishmen John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, was one popular series of 144 pamphlets. These Whig circulars were published between 1720 and 1723 and emphasized the glory of England, especially its commitment to liberty. However, the pamphlets cautioned readers to be ever vigilant and on the lookout for attacks upon that liberty. Indeed, Cato’s Letters suggested that there were constant efforts to undermine and destroy liberty.
Another very popular publication was the English gentlemen’s magazine the Spectator, published between 1711 and 1714. In each issue, “Mr. Spectator” observed and commented on the world around him. What made the Spectator so wildly popular was its style; the essays were meant to persuade and to cultivate among readers a refined set of behaviors, rejecting deceit and intolerance and focusing instead on the polishing of genteel taste and manners.
Novels, a new type of literature, made their first appearance in the 18th century and proved very popular in the British Atlantic. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded found large and receptive audiences. Reading also allowed female readers the opportunity to interpret what they read without depending on a male authority to tell them what to think. Few women beyond the colonial gentry, however, had access to novels.

What do you think?

Compare and contrast white British citizens living in England and white British citizens living in America during the eighteenth century. In what ways were they similar? In what ways were they different?
Take a look at William Byrd's portrait. How do elements of the painting suggest Byrd's status as a member of the colonial gentry?
How influential do you think newspapers, pamphlets, and novels were in creating a shared culture throughout the British Empire? How do you think present-day forms of international media, like television shows and websites, compare to the printed word in the eighteenth century?
This article is a modified derivative of "An Empire of Slavery and the Consumer Revolution" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
The modified article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
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