Trade between Great Britain and America is currently an important political and economic issue. When President Trump visited the UK in June 2019, preliminary discussions about a potential 'Post-Brexit' trade deal between the two nations was headline news. However, looking back, trade between Britain and America has always been important. The trade in tea, for instance, was at the epicentre of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when American Patriots threw tea on which they would have to pay British taxes into Boston Harbour in defiance. Move forward 138 years and by 1914, Britain had more money invested in the USA than it did in Australia and Canada - two of its own Dominions - combined. It may come as something of a surprise to learn that the trade in hats between Britain and America was particularly important in the 18th century. So, did hats really help to cause the American Revolution? Well, just maybe. Here's how ...
The origins of the American Revolution 1775-1783 are often traced back to the end of the Seven-Years' War in 1763. Britain had defeated France and Spain, but in the process incurred a significant national debt which would need to be serviced by extracting taxation from her American colonies. There is truth in this. The mantra of the patriot group ‘Sons of Liberty’ was ‘No taxation without representation’, which alludes to the causal centrality of the issue of taxation implemented by the British Parliament without American colonists being returned to Westminster as MPs. In addition, the 'King George Proclamation' of 1763 forbade British settlement west of the Appalachian Mountain range on the American continent, in an attempt to minimise the prospect of further costly wars involving the British Army. This served to limit the Colonists' thirst for territorial expansion, the physical barrier to which was now the British Redcoats supposedly there to protect them, rather than the French or Native Americans.
Others have traced the roots of the American Revolution back to the very nature of the British settlers themselves. The early colonists took with them the concept of the ‘Freeborn Englishman’, imbued with the inviolable rights handed down from Magna Carta 1215 and the Bill of Rights 1689, which protected them from absolute tyranny and despotism. To this end, historian Piers Brendon has argued: “The Empire carried within it from birth an ideological bacillus that would prove fatal. This was Edmund Burke’s paternalistic doctrine that colonial government was a trust. It was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright - freedom.” Clearly, this interpretation indicates that the concept of the ‘Freeborn Englishman’ was an underlying causal factor in precipitating revolution, as the British settlers were inherently resistant to ongoing interference from a British Monarch 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
There were, however, events that occurred between the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 and the end of the Seven-Years War in 1763 that served to undermine the relationship between the British colonists in America and the Mother Country. One such event was the passage of the little-known ‘Hat Act’ through Parliament in 1732. In essence, this forbade the colonists in America from exporting hats. Instead, they were obliged to import them from Britain. Moreover, it limited the number of apprentices that could be employed by hatmakers in the colonies, thus starving the colonial hat manufacturers of inductees into the profession. In an era where one’s social status was symbolised by apparel, this left the colonists with little choice but to pay the increased prices charged by British milliners for tri-corner hats and mobcaps. Indeed, some colonists suspected that British tailors were exploiting their monopoly position and deliberately sending antiquated garments and ‘seconds’ to the colonies. Whatever the truth, Thomas Jefferson made clear his objection to the Hat Act on the eve of the American Revolution in 1774:
By an act passed in the 5th Year of the reign of his late Majesty King George II, an American subject is forbidden to make a hat for himself of the fur which he has taken perhaps on his own soil; an instance of despotism to which no parallel can be produced in the most arbitrary ages of British history.
Perhaps Jefferson’s grievance against the Hat Act was genuine. Perhaps it was merely harnessed to help to fan the flames of anti-British sentiment amongst the Colonials on the eve of the Revolution. Perhaps both. Whatever the truth, the 1732 Hat Act demonstrates that the legislative origins of the American Revolution pre-date 1763 and the end of the Seven Years' War.
Co-Editor of Versus History