In The Marketplace of Revolution, T. H. Breen argues that it was a shared consumer culture, and the political power that came from that consumption, that united the thirteen colonies against the British in the mid-1770s. British North America experienced a boom in consumption mid-century, with middling people able to afford what would have been considered luxury goods at the beginning of the century. Able to afford may be putting it too strongly, as these purchases were largely made on credit. To Breen, it was this availability that gave more people a political voice than would have been the case before the consumer-goods boom.
This argument is juxtaposed against those of historians who would credit ideology with inspiring the Revolution and uniting the colonists. Rather Breen says that social conditions made colonists embrace ideology in ways they would not have if things had been different. And it was the desire for a fairly homogenous range of consumer goods that all the colonists, from Boston to Charleston, had in common.
Breen outlines the way the colonists came to embrace the idea that personal choices could be political, and since politics and personal life were tied, women and the poor were not only able to participate politically, but the Revolution depended upon them doing so. The politicization of consumption took a few decades to incubate, but once it did it became a very powerful force that is still often utilized today.
When ordinary people started acquiring imported goods seen as luxuries, commentators decried the practice, with unease about being able to tell the rich from their social inferiors being a primary concern. The liberal use of credit by middling consumers was also a concern. But this ignores that fact that the very act of immigrating to the colonies, at least for those who did so voluntarily, meant that people wanted to change their station, and buying the right consumer goods could make one appear, at least, to have become a success at business.
Breen notes that this does not sit well with those who like to think of the colonists as being self-sufficient and therefore an example against which our current consumer culture compares badly. An alternative to this is to see the colonists as understanding consumer power in ways that could be instructive to us.
Breen shows that Britain used its laws to create a market in North America for its goods, and that the exportation of these goods allowed Britain to become the industrial/imperial powerhouse that it was in the eighteenth century. Having a closed market for its goods meant that Britain could fund its imperial wars without affecting its citizen’s pocketbooks, which meant that internal unrest was minimized. At the time, Britain was pre-industrial so most of the manufactures were made at a small scale, in homes and on farms. At the same time, the British had to afford the colonists a degree of respect, since British manufacturers were utterly dependent on them. This allowed the colonists to identify more with their Britishness and feel as if they could enjoy the spoils of empire along with their fellow Englishmen.
Meanwhile, colonial shopkeepers were policed by consumers and needed to be impeccably honest and modest. This was to quell fears that merchants might become too powerful. Breen shows that this desire for policing of merchants echoes the mandates of seventeenth-century religion.
For the first time, colonists did not suffer inconvenience for lack of things. Never before had they had so many choices in consumer goods on which to style an identity to their liking. Breen connects this consumer choice with two things: the idea of the curtailment of consumer choice as a human rights issue, and choice as a political weapon to be leveraged against those who wish to curtail that choice.
Breen stresses that it was not merely conveniences that drove consumer spending, but also fashion and fluidity of the markets. When even middling people followed fashion, traditional deference suffered. And tea was a product that anyone could buy who wished to be seen as fashionable. There were other required accouterments that were required in serving tea, and all of it symbolized a consumer’s good taste. Diatribes against people overturning social order, be they poor people indulging in imported fabrics, young people who insisted on their share, or women who made many of the buying choices, began to appear. These polemics did little to stem the almost insatiable desire for consumer goods.
This was the consumer environment that existed in the decades leading up to the revolution. During the Stamp Act crisis, colonists recognized that their consumption could be used as a political force, but they directed merchants to not import goods rather than relying on each other to boycott British goods. The Stamp Act was repealed relatively quickly, and colonists went back to their happy consumption. But they came away with an uncomfortable awareness of their status as colonists, and not full British citizens. Their post-Seven Years’ War patriotic zeal was their way of dealing with this uncomfortable feeling. If only they could assert their Britishness enough, they would be seen as equals with the British.
Breen argues that print, another consumer good, was key in uniting the colonists as one people tied together by the joys and problems of consumerism as a closed market. By the time urge for Revolution came in the mid 1770s, consumers had the tools at their disposal to not only protest Britain as individuals, but also enforce boycotts amongst others.
Women were particularly targeted as weak-willed and ready to selfishly consume, but this really reveals a tension between men, who were used to having all the political power, and women, who now had the power of non-consumption at their disposal as a strong political force. Breen’s tracing of the discourse around tea drinking is fascinating. Tea started out as being a drink that could “undermine the moral health” of women in particular. As the drink came to represent the tyranny of Britain, it came to be seen as a substance that could feminize men.
Breen does not dismiss ideological explanations for Revolution, but he does say that these ideologies would never had taken hold of the thirteen colonies without the personal political power associated with consumption, and the ubiquity of consumption and consumer goods across the colonies. His argument that the colonists went from seeing themselves at the top of the Empire, along with the British who lived in Britain, raises interesting questions, such as what role did exotic consumer goods play in colonists’ feelings of Britishness? British consumer goods were traded with Native people in exchange for political partnerships. Did this play a role at all in colonist’s perceptions of consumer goods from Britain, considering they were the people who desired Native land the most? It is also refreshing to see an author not buy into the idea of consumerism as a purely negative thing, as eighteenth century and twenty-first century polemicists would have us believe. Instead it is a way of forming identity and expressing the personal, and therefore the political.
1. T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).