In September 1774, just prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, the First Continental Congress passed a resolution called the Continental Association. The Association was essentially a boycott designed to place economic pressure on Britain and a political tool to prompt Americans to declare their loyalties. The "test" was simply whether or not a citizen agreed to join the Association in support of the American cause. The Association had a limited effect on British politics, but the test forced colonists to take a political stand, even when uncertainties made many reluctant.
The passage of the Association culminated a decade of deteriorating relations between Americans and Britain. Following defeat of the French in North America in 1763, the British Empire tightened imperial controls and introduced a series of new taxes on the American colonies. Colonists known as Whigs resisted British initiatives with riots and boycotts. When Whigs destroyed East India Company tea in Boston in December 1773, Parliament retaliated with a series of punitive measures, known as the Coercive Acts, that closed the Port of Boston, disallowed town meetings, removed judicial powers from the colony, and instituted a quartering act for British troops. American Whigs united in opposition to the British encroachments on traditional rights, but a significant number of colonists, some conservative in outlook, others with business ties to the Empire, and still others who held royal offices, felt their interest or duty was to Britain.
The first task for the Continental Congress in 1774 was to devise a response to the Coercive Acts that would persuade the British to alter their policy and simultaneously solidify domestic support for the American cause. Congressional deliberations produced the Continental Association. It called for colonists to "firmly agree and associate, under the sacred ties of virtue, honour and love of our country" in support of "a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement." Americans who signed the pledge agreed to halt imports of goods from Britain, agreed not to sell or buy British goods, agreed to discontinue the slave trade, agreed to curb exports, and agreed to "encourage frugality, economy, and industry."
Although the first portion of the Association intended to leverage America's economic clout to convince Parliament to rescind the Coercive Acts, a brief closing clause provided the authorization for local Whigs to encourage undecided citizens to join the Association and endorse the American cause. Congress empowered local committees "to establish such farther regulations as they may think proper, for carrying into execution this association" (Journals of the American Congress I: 22, 26.). Committees inspected merchants' records and publicly published the names of transgressors. They also organized town meetings in defiance of the ban at which townspeople were asked to join the Association. Individuals who refused to sign or cooperate were ostracized, labeled Tories, and considered enemies of American liberty.
EXCERPT FROM THE CONTINENTAL ASSOCIATION, OCTOBER 20, 1774
1. That from and after the first day of December next, we will not import, into British America, from Great-Britain or Ireland, any goods, wares, or merchandise whatsoever, or from any other place, any such goods, wares, or merchandise, as shall have been exported from Great-Britain or Ireland; nor will we, after that day, import any East-India tea from any part of the world; nor any molasses, syrups, paneles [brown unpurified sugar], coffee, or pimento, from the British plantations or from Dominica; nor wines from Madeira, or the Western Islands; nor foreign indigo.
2. We will neither import nor purchase, any slave imported after the first day of December next; after which time, we will wholly discontinue the slave trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it.
3. As a non-consumption agreement, strictly adhered to, will be an effectual security for the observation of the non-importation, we, as above, solemnly agree and associate, that, from this day, we will not purchase or use any tea, imported on account of the East-India company, or any on which a duty hath been or shall be paid; and from and after the first day of March next, we will not purchase or use any East-India tea whatever; nor will we, nor shall any person for or under us, purchase or use any of those goods, wares, or merchandise, we have agreed not to import ….
8. We will, in our several stations, encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments; and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families, will go into any further mourning-dress, than a black crape or ribbon on the arm or hat, for gentlemen, and a black ribbon and necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals ….
11. That a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association; and when it shall be made to appear, to the satisfaction of a majority of any such committee, that any person within the limits of their appointment has violated this association, that such majority do forthwith cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British-America may be publicly known, and universally contemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively will break off all dealings with him or her.
In Massachusetts, Israel Litchfield recorded in his diary, "We went to town meeting. They had the Association of the Continental Congress presented to the people to sign. Almost all of them that were there signed it, young and old, I for one" (Johnson, p. 162). The decision of whether or not to sign the Association was a public declaration of one's political loyalties. Signing the Association was a public oath of support for the Whigs. Refusal to sign signaled open support for the British. The Association test forced reluctant patriots to take a stand, and the test identified non-signers as Tories who posed a potential danger to the movement.
In nearly every colony associators confronted individuals who spoke for the royal government or denigrated the Whig movement. Groups of associators intimidated suspected Tories, demanding a recantation of British loyalties and public endorsement of the American cause. In 1775 a Philadelphian named Christopher Marshall wrote, "about thirty of our associators waited upon and conducted Isaac Hunt from his dwelling to the Coffee House, where having placed him in a cart, he very politely acknowledged he had said and acted wrong, for which he asked pardon of the public and committed himself under the protection of the associators" (Duane, p. 41).
In Northampton, Massachusetts, local Whigs embarked on a "tour of education" in which the mob went about forcing recantations of Tory sympathies from a number of eminent local citizens who held royal political appointments. In Virginia influential planters led the effort to require all the merchants to sign the Association or be branded as enemies. One man accused of writing a letter deemed "false and inimical" to America apologized in an open letter: "I implore the forgiveness of this country for so ungrateful a return made for the advantages I have received from it … and hope, from this contrition for my offence, I shall at least be admitted to subsist among the people I greatly esteem" (Middlekauff p. 258). Another Virginia man, shown the error of his ways by the local associators, publicly repented in the Virginia Gazette of July 20, 1775, for calling the Americans "an unlawful mob" among other things. He wrote, "I did not mean as much as I said … and in the most humble manner ask pardon. I most heartily wish success to this my native country in her present honest struggle for liberty." When given the Association test, these men, like many other hesitant patriots, chose to endorse the American cause rather than risk the consequences of being labeled Tory and ostracized by their neighbors.
Duane, William, ed. Extracts from the Diary of Christopher Marshall, 1774–1781 [1839, 1849]. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Johnson, Richard Brigham, ed. "The Diary of Israel Litchfield." The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 129 (1975).
Journals of the American Congress: From 1774 to 1788. 4 vols. Washington, DC: Way and Gideon, 1823.
Walter L. Sargent