Homespun Cloth in the American Revolution

The American colonial rebels anticipated Gandhi’s homespun cloth campaign by over a century. Here’s part of a poem — “American Daughters of Liberty” — written in by Milcah Martha Moore, a Quaker from Philadelphia who was advocating nonviolent resistance techniques against the British:

Let the Daughters of Liberty nobly arise;
And though we’ve no voice but a negative here,
The use of the taxables, let us forbear:—
(Then merchants import till your stores are all full,
May the buyers be few, and your traffic be dull!)

Stand firmly resolv’d, and bid Grenville to see,
That rather than freedom we part with our tea,
And well as we love the dear draught when a-dry,
As American Patriots our taste we deny—
Pennsylvania’s gay meadows can richly afford
To pamper our fancy or furnish our board;
And paper sufficient at home still we have,
To assure the wiseacre, we will not sign slave;
When this homespun shall fail, to remonstrate our grief,
We can speak viva voce, or scratch on a leaf;
Refuse all their colors, though richest of dye,
When the juice of a berry our paint can supply,
To humor our fancy — and as for our houses,
They’ll do without painting as well as our spouses;
While to keep out the cold of a keen winter morn,
We can screen the north-west with a well polished horn;
And trust me a woman, by honest invention,
Might give this state-doctor a dose of prevention.

Join mutual in this — and but small as it seems,
We may jostle a Grenville, and puzzle his schemes;
But a motive more worthy our patriot pen,
Thus acting — we point out their duty to men;
And should the bound-pensioners tell us to hush,
We can throw back the satire, by biding them blush.

“Grenville” refers to George Grenville, the former prime minister and architect of the loathed “Stamp Act.” In Anne Macdonald’s No Idle Hands: The Social History of Knitting, she writes:

After increasingly punitive restraints climaxed with the Stamp Act, women ardently supported the boycott of British goods by alleging that “naught but homespun” would cloak their bodies and that spinning wheels and knitting needles would doom “foreign manufactures.” Formation of the Daughters of Liberty, the female “auxiliary” to the more radical Stamp Tax resisters, the Sons of Liberty, presaged an effective instrument for hardening resistance to British measures.…

New Englanders, eager to confirm their boldness in dressing only in domestic threads rather than anticipating arrival of modish bolts and bales from England, restructured the social form of the “spinning bee” into a public outcry against British goods.…

…at the first commencement exercises of Rhode Island College (later Brown University), the president proud-spiritedly wore wholly homespun clothing. At Harvard, the faculty and students had all taken to homespun in support of their women spinners, of whom the Boston Chronicle had bragged “[T]hey exhibited a fine example of industry, by spinning from sunrise until dark, and displayed a spirit for saving their sinking country, rarely to be found among persons of more age and experience.”

Fierce competition between congregations, between married and unmarried women, between towns and cities and between old and young converted proceedings into such festive social occasions that hundreds of merry spectators milled around the grounds, augmented in the evening by men who joined the spinners and knitters for picnics and boisterous Sons of Liberty ballads. The bees’ bountiful harvest of thread and yarn inspired others to imitate their fervor, and newspapers identified patriots by airing individual production records…

With the passage of England’s increasingly obstructive measures (such as the Coercive Acts in retaliation to the climactic Boston Tea Party), calls for boycotting tea and wearing homespun and handknit were even more strident. Since women were the purchasers of what was served and worn in their homes, speakers, writers and preachers insisted that the “ultimate power” of saving the country reposed in their hands. Even discounting the hyperbolic prose, women whose previous job descriptions had included little outside the family circle must have been astonished at the new perimeters of their responsibility. Since noncompliance fell on their shoulders, their consequent focus on home production laid the groundwork for clothing their men when war actually came.

What would be a good equivalent of the patriotic knitting bee for today’s sons and daughters of liberty? What commercial transactions does the government tax that it would have a harder time taxing if they were the fruits of household industry rather than the marketplace?

I’ve already discussed homebrewed beer as one good candidate. Avoid the federal excise tax on alcoholic beverages, learn a craft, and drink good beer! It’s a winning proposition any way you look at it. I can easily imagine tax resister “brewing bees” or better yet “drinking bees” at which songs of liberty are sung with gusto.

But excise taxes are a minor portion of most people’s tax bill, and of the money the government takes in each year. Most of the government’s revenue comes from taxing income and profit. What are the homespun, untaxed equivalents of income and profit? Enter Karl Hess, the Goldwaterite Republican Students-for-a-Democratic-Society anarchist libertarian, who published a provocative essay on barter . Excerpts:

… constant harassment by the Internal Revenue Service caused me to snap my twig and just stop paying taxes altogether.… [M]y tax collector informed me that a lien would be placed against all my property — that they would take every cent, literally 100 percent, of every penny I might earn and that they could discern.

I asked, then, how they would handle it if I decided to just barter for a living. They had a ready answer: “If you get some turnips for your work, we’ll take the turnips.” Fortunately for me, either the IRS is surfeited with vegetables, or turnips are a good deal more difficult to track down than cold cash.

And so I survive. The other day I welded up a fish-smoking rack for a family in Washington, D.C. It will earn me a year’s supply of smoked fish. At about the same time, I helped a friend dig a foundation. He’ll help me lay the concrete blocks for a workshop. Part of my pay for a lecture at a New England college was the use of the school’s welding shop, to make some metal sculptures. Three such sculptures have paid my attorney’s fees in maintaining the tax resistance which is the reason barter has become such an integral part of my life.