NONIMPORTATION. Nonimportation was a form of economic sanction by which the colonies sought on several occasions to pressure Parliament to repeal acts they found offensive or illegal. The idea that the colonies should unite in boycotting the importation of British goods was first proposed at a Boston town meeting on 24 May 1764 that had been called to denounce provisions in the Sugar Act. The potential effectiveness of a peaceful economic protest appealed to activists elsewhere, and by the end of the year merchants in other colonies, notably New York, had agreed, or been pressured, to accept nonimportation. The Stamp Act of 1765 gave added urgency to the program, but repeal of the act, news of which arrived at New York City on 26 April 1766, led to abandonment of nonimportation.
The Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 revived the idea of nonimportation, and by the end of 1769 only merchants in New Hampshire had not joined the local Associations that sprang up to enforce nonimportation. The agreements were effective enough so that the value of British imports was reduced by almost 40 percent between 1768 and 1769. When the Townshend duties were limited to tea in April 1770, the appearance of some success and an unwillingness to endure further economic pain led merchants and others to abandon nonimportation, despite efforts by Boston activists to keep the movement alive. The collapse of nonimportation started at Albany, Providence, and Newport in May 1770 and spread to New York City in July; by the end of the year Philadelphia (12 September), Boston (12 October), and Charleston, South Carolina (13 December), had withdrawn from the nonimportation associations. Virginia, which had organized the first Association, finally abandoned the idea in July 1771.
The effectiveness of nonimportation always depended on collective action and cumulative effect. Merchants who originally advocated nonimportation might later take the initiative in ending it when it went on too long and brought them to the verge of economic ruin. Nonimportation depended on vigilant and widespread enforcement by local extralegal groups that were willing to use threats and intimidation to secure compliance, and some merchants were horrified that this tactic was passing from their control into the hands of the activists and the mob. Nonimportation sputtered out in 1771 because the pain was too great, the provocation too small, the impact on imperial policy too unclear, and the prospect of social instability too great. The collapse of nonimportation was a severe setback for the activists, who lamented that "the Spirit of Patriotism seems expiring in America in general" (Miller, p. 315).
Miller, John C. Origins of the American Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1943.
revised by Harold E. Selesky