What is patriotism?
What does it mean to you to be an American Patriot?
To George Washington in 1789, it meant wearing “American” homespun, home-sewn brown broadcloth suit to take the oath of a newly created office as the head of a newly created country. The Mt. Vernon Estate website explains that, “American observers and foreign dignitaries who witnessed the ceremony at New York’s Federal Hall took note of the domestically-made fabric, which Washington proudly wore as a symbol of and hope for the development of American manufactures.”
To the first Harvard College graduating class, it also meant wearing homespun in solidarity with the new republic.
To Thomas Jefferson, it meant researching sheep breeds and cross-breeding his flocks so as to produce a new “American” stock that would produce good meat and superior wool. (Yes, the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president was a shepherd! How great is that?)
Why all this emphasis on “homespun” and sheep-breeding by the leaders of our country? At that time, there was no such thing as “Made in America” Contrary to popular belief, the early settlers did not arrive with spinning wheels and looms, and set to providing their families with clothes and bed linens. Most of them were, in fact, well-to-do and did not know much about spinning and weaving. So, for much of the early republic, the colonists relied heavily on imported goods, mostly coming from Great Britain. When dissatisfaction began to arise in the colonies, some – Boston in particular – passed embargoes on imported goods. None of the fine cloth or fancy fashion that women and men were used to getting were coming into the shops. In retaliation, Britain imposed higher tariffs on exported goods. We are getting, as you can guess to the Boston Tea Party. At this point, “patriots” – in favor of a declaration of independence from Great Britain – started movements to be self-sufficient and not to be beholden to a “foreign” power for trade goods. Not everyone agreed. There were great political and social divisions internally – in towns, neighbor to neighbor; in families, brother to brother. Many people still had family and business ties to Great Britain and felt that it was still truly their country. It was not an easy time. The time and effort to make your own clothes was considerate. It also was a very specific “look”. Nothing imported from overseas would be so simple and unadorned. So, the people who went to the trouble of making their own or supporting local craftsmen were definitely making a statement. As we saw above, people understood that Washington was definitely making a statement.
So, a question for you to ponder wearing your t-shirt and jeans while eating you hot dogs and potato salad on this Independence Day: what does patriotism mean to you?