The term “Cancel Culture” – the practice of collectively blocking someone (usually a public figure) on social media or other venues because of a comment or action – has been in the news lately. Some say it’s the natural consequence of dealing with abhorrent behavior, while others think it suppresses speech and has a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas. In fact, Cancel Culture is actually new name for an old practice — social ostracism.
When Americans have wanted to stop others’ objectionable activities, and didn’t have the law or the sufficient funding on their side, they have resorted to blaming, shaming, and shunning. They have blackened the character of perceived offenders. They have refused them service in stores. They have prevented them from moving into certain neighborhoods. And they have organized boycotts of businesses owned by the opposition.
Of all the forms of cancelling, this last might be the most effective. In fact, it was powerful enough to unite the American colonies and bring the first Continental Congress to session.
In 1765, the Parliament of Great Britain enacted the Stamp Act, which placed a surcharge on essential items sold in the American colonies. Colonists protested — less to the new tax than the fact that Parliament had imposed it without consulting the colonists’ elected assemblies.
In time, protests led to demonstrations by angry mobs. In Boston, a group calling themselves the Sons of Liberty demanded that Massachusetts’ tax collector resign. When he didn’t, they burned his effigy in the streets, then set fire to his office building. He got the message and quit. The mob then attacked the house of the lieutenant governor, a close friend of the tax collector, and tore it down. In Newport, Rhode Island, a mob hung effigies of the local stamp distributor and leading Tory politicians outside their homes before cutting off the effigies’ heads.
But New York merchants knew such demonstrations would only strengthen British resolve. They had a better idea for convincing Parliament to rescind the Stamp Act. They would stop importing British goods. Soon they were joined by merchants in Boston, Philadelphia, and other colonial ports.
When English merchants saw a sharp drop in their export sales, they successfully pressured Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act. But Parliament felt it needed to reassert its authority. So, in 1767, it passed the Townshend Acts. These gave Parliament the ultimate power to tax the colonies. And they imposed duties on exported products that colonists couldn’t make for themselves, such as paper, glass, salt, lead, paint, and tea.
Merchants in New England were quick to revive the non-importation policy. The Sons of Liberty spread out through Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island to coax or pressure 24 towns to boycott British goods. Meanwhile, in Boston, more than 60 merchants and traders signed the “Boston Non-Importation Agreement.”
Traders in port cities like Philadelphia and New York also signed the Agreement. In South Carolina, merchants, planters, and artisans united to enforce non-importation. British goods in American ports were either stored or shipped back to Britain.
Within two weeks, only 16 Boston merchants still refused to join the boycott. Other merchants now voted to ostracize the tradesmen who wouldn’t honor their embargo.
As the movement spread, so did the pressure on the uncooperative merchants. They were publicly denounced.
Their names were published in the newspapers and their businesses shunned. In Maryland, the colonial assembly branded them “enemies to the Liberties of America.” In August 1769, the Boston Chronicle printed names of merchants still trading in British goods.
In New York, the boycotters “doxxed” offending merchants, giving details of their business and where they could be found in the city.
When merchants gave in to public pressure, they might insert notices in the newspapers to admit their guilt and ask forgiveness.
Some colonists weren’t content at passively “cancelling” offenders. They tarred and feathered uncooperative merchants, drove them from their homes and towns, or broke into their warehouses and damage their goods.
Rhode Island kept out of the embargo, seeing it as a business opportunity. The merchants of Rhode Island crossed into Massachusetts to sell imported British goods. In response, other colonies argued for cutting off trade to the offending colony. New York effectively shut down all critical business with Rhode Island. Suddenly alone, the Rhode Island merchants joined the non-importation agreement.
In Boston, the Sons of Liberty were growing increasingly resentful. They led mobs that vandalized stores selling British goods and threatened merchants and customers within them.
Sensing that the colonial cancelling was getting out of hand, the British government sent 2,000 soldiers to Boston to restore order. In February, when a mob attacked a royalist’s store, a boy was shot and killed. And on March 5, a mob began throwing snowballs and stones at British soldiers who fired into the crowd, killing five colonists, in what became known as the Boston Massacre.
The non-importation agreement ended on January 1, 1770, though Boston merchants kept their embargo going until October. By that time, the Townshend Acts duties had been removed on all items — except tea. Resentment over the tea tax ultimately led to Boston Tea Party, in which 342 chests of tea were dumped in Boston harbor.
Parliament responded with The Coercive Acts in 1773. They replaced Massachusetts’ locally elected government with crown-appointed ministers. And they ordered all rebellious colonists shipped to England to stand trial.
Once again, colonists turned to their old, reliable weapon: cancelling imports and the people who sold them. But this time, merchants wanted to ensure all colonial merchants obeyed the boycott. Both tradesmen and consumers suspected each other of breaking the embargo. The solution was a request for each colony to send representatives to meet and establish rules and penalties to enforce non-importation.
Thus, in 1774, the first Continental Congress of the colonies met and passed the Continental Association: a colony-wide agreement to boycott British goods.
Years later, when Abraham Lincoln spoke of the union of the state, he said the Union was older than the Constitution. “It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774.”
Featured image: Library of Congress
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now