Ornamental Separator

Familiar Bedfellows

American commerce and politics have long been entangled

Williamsburg’s taverns were steeped in 18th-century politics. After all, establishments like the King’s Arms Tavern and the Raleigh Tavern, facing each other across Duke of Gloucester Street, were a stone’s throw from the Capitol and often hosted the colony’s most distinguished movers and shakers, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Taverns were spaces where people came together and debated politics over pints of ale.

Indeed, commerce helped pave the path to the American Revolution. Many bitterly opposed the 1767 Townshend Acts, which taxed goods like glass, tea and paper. Though the acts were partially repealed in 1770, the tax on tea remained, and the passage of the Tea Act in 1773 only increased resentment, leading to the Boston Tea Party later that year. In accordance with the Continental Association, which was created by the First Continental Congress in 1774 and called for a boycott of British goods, merchants faced pressure to refuse to import said goods.

As a similar boycott was going into effect in Virginia, Williamsburg merchant John Prentis found himself in hot water when it was discovered that he had imported tea from London. The chests of tea arrived at Yorktown but never made it to Williamsburg. When some Yorktown citizens learned of it, they boarded the ship and tossed the tea into the York River.

Facing searing condemnation from his colleagues and neighbors, Prentis printed a public apology in the Virginia Gazette on Nov. 24, 1774:

It gives me much Concern to find that I have incurred the Displeasure of the York and Gloucester Committees, and...do with Truth declare, that I had not the least Intention to give Offence, nor did I mean as Opposition to any Measure for the publick Good. My Countrymen, therefore, it is earnestly hoped, will readily forgive me for an Act which may be interpreted so much to my Discredit; and I again make this publick Declaration, that I had not the least Design to act contrary to those Principles which ought to govern every Individual who has a just Regard for the Rights and Liberties of America.

In 1774, the Raleigh and King’s Arms taverns figured in an overt political act: Archibald Cary, a Virginia landowner and patriot, hoisted a liberty pole in the street between the two. Liberty poles in the American colonies symbolized defiance of Great Britain, and they also served as a warning to those who wavered on the issue of independence. Hundreds of merchants congregated in Williamsburg that November to endorse the call by the Continental Association. By erecting the liberty pole, complete with a barrel of tar and a bag of feathers, Cary sent a message to merchants reluctant to join the boycott.

The liberty pole incident may have been particular to the 18th century, but the fundamental reason behind it endures: Commerce and politics have always intersected. Whether getting caught up in the crosswinds of politics or taking an overt political stand, businesses were — and are — sometimes shaped by the political climate, and vice versa.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, for example, slavery was big business and a political minefield in the United States. Understanding where the cotton in their clothing originated, many abolitionists boycotted cotton goods. Some abolitionists made ethically sourced goods into a business model: “Free-produce stores” — shops that sold goods produced outside the slave economy — sprang up. Quaker Lydia White, for one, opened her free-produce store in Philadelphia in 1830 and operated it for nearly 17 years.

When businesses get caught up in national issues, it is sometimes because consumers moved them to act. Discriminatory Jim Crow laws put in place after the Civil War were enforced by businesses, propping up the racial policies of state and local governments. When four Black students at what was then the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina launched a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, the F.W. Woolworth Company was pushed into the national spotlight. Protests and picket lines followed at Woolworth stores across the country, prompting the organization to revisit its policies.

Corporate lobbyists have further blurred the lines between business and politics. In 1972, the fast-food industry lobbied hard for the so-called McDonald’s bill, which would lower wages for workers under the age of 18.

Businesses have also publicly taken political stands. Contemporary brands like Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear designer, have worn their politics on their sleeves. Particularly vocal on environmental issues, Patagonia literally displays its opinions on its clothing labels. And there is nothing new about its decision. In the 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid policy — which had been in place since 1948 — provoked condemnation from activists, organizations and governments. In the wake of public pressure, some businesses cut commercial ties with South Africa. Pepsi was one of the biggest corporations to pull out of the country in 1985.

Business continues to be a willing and unwilling political partner in American life today, whether companies make political donations, sports teams react to players’ political statements, small businesses adapt to new mandates or corporations operate in nations with which the United States has a strained relationship.

Today’s political discussions have evolved from the 18th-century debates on tariffs to the pros and cons of regulating social media companies and analyzing the public-private partnership that produced COVID-19 vaccines. But the participants in those tavern discussions nonetheless understood that business and politics collide in sometimes combustible ways. Even as new issues arise and the social climate shifts, the connection between commerce and politics remains as present — and as complicated — as it has always been. 

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