How A Law About Hats Contributed to the American Revolution

Patrick O’Shaughnessy

Did the Imposition of the Hat Act cause the American Revolution?
George Washington in a Redcoat during the Seven Years War, when he fought for the British. Notice the hat.
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American Patriots ‘tarring and feathering’ a loyalist / British official prior to the Revolution. Notice the hats.

Trade between Great Britain and America is currently an important political and economic issue. When Donald Trump visited the UK in June 2019, preliminary discussions about a potential ‘Post-Brexit’ trade deal between the two nations was headline news. More recently still, the British Government announced in July 2020 that British mobile network operators would have to remove any components manufactured by the Chinese company Huawei, a move that some suggested was due to diplomatic pressure leveraged by the previous Trump administration. However, looking back in history, trade between Britain and America has always been very important. Patriot opposition to British taxes levied on the tea trade, for instance, contributed to the outbreak of the Boston Tea Party in 1773; American Patriots threw the taxable tea into Boston Harbour in defiance. Moving forward one hundred and thirty eight years and by 1914, Britain had more money invested in the USA than it did in both Australia and Canada – two of its Dominions – combined. It may well come as something of a surprise to learn that the trade in hats between Britain and America was particularly important in the 18th century. So, ​did hats really contribute to the outbreak of the American Revolution? Well, just maybe. Here’s how:

The origins of the American Revolution 1775-1783 are often traced back to the end of the Seven-Years’ War in 1763. Britain had defeated France and Spain, but in the process incurred a significant national debt which would need to be serviced by extracting taxation from her American colonies. There is truth in this. The mantra of the Patriot group ‘Sons of Liberty’ was ‘No taxation without representation’, which alludes to the causal centrality of the issue of taxation implemented by the British Parliament without American colonists being returned to Westminster as MPs. In addition, the ‘King George Proclamation’ of 1763 forbade British settlement west of the Appalachian Mountain range on the American continent, in an attempt to minimise the prospect of further costly wars involving the British Army. This served to limit the Colonists’ capacity for territorial expansion, the physical barrier to which was now the British Redcoats supposedly there to protect them, rather than the French or Native Americans.

The hat endures in America. Donald Trump wearing a baseball cap during the 2016 election race.

Others have traced the roots of the American Revolution back to the very nature of the British settlers themselves. The early colonists took with them the concept of the ‘Freeborn Englishman’, imbued with the inviolable rights handed down from Magna Carta 1215 and the Bill of Rights 1689, which protected them from absolute tyranny and despotism. To this end, historian Piers Brendon has argued: “The Empire carried within it from birth an ideological bacillus that would prove fatal. This was Edmund Burke’s paternalistic doctrine that colonial government was a trust. It was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright – freedom.” Clearly, this interpretation indicates that the concept of the ‘Freeborn Englishman’ was an underlying causal factor in precipitating the Revolution, as the British settlers were inherently resistant to ongoing interference from a British Monarch three thousand miles away across the Atlantic Ocean.

The traditional cowboy hat in America. Proof that the hat endures in the United States of America.

There were, however, events that occurred between the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 and the end of the Seven-Years’ War in 1763 that served to undermine the relationship between the British colonists in America and the Mother Country. One such event was the passage of the little-known ‘Hat Act’ through Parliament in 1732. In essence, this forbade the colonists in America from exporting hats. Instead, they were obliged to import them from Britain. Moreover, it limited the number of apprentices that could be employed by hat-makers in the colonies, thus starving the colonial hat manufacturers of inductees into the profession. In an era where one’s social status was symbolised by apparel, this left the colonists with little choice but to pay the increased prices charged by British milliners for tri-corner hats and mobcaps. Indeed, some colonists suspected that British tailors were exploiting their monopoly position and deliberately sending antiquated garments and ‘seconds’ to the colonies. Whatever the truth, Thomas Jefferson made clear his objection to the Hat Act on the eve of the American Revolution in 1774:

By an act passed in the 5th Year of the reign of his late Majesty King George II, an American subject is forbidden to make a hat for himself of the fur which he has taken perhaps on his own soil; an instance of despotism to which no parallel can be produced in the most arbitrary ages of British history.

Perhaps Jefferson’s grievance against the Hat Act was genuine. Perhaps it was merely harnessed to fan the flames of anti-British sentiment amongst the Colonials on the eve of the Revolution. Perhaps both. Whatever the truth, the 1732 Hat Act demonstrates that the legislative origins of the American Revolution pre-date 1763 and the end of the Seven Years’ War.


Patrick O’Shaughnessy, aka History Chappy, is a Head of History & History Teacher, and Co-Editor of Versus History.

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