T.H. Breen

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The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence

T.H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History (Oxford University Press, 2004) Review by Martin Brady

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may seem like abstractions to the casual observer of the American Revolution. But as T. H. Breen points out in The Marketplace of Revolution, no historical event could have been more rooted in the concrete expression of goods and services. Revolutions may appear to be more commonly identified with power struggles and philosophical visions, but the plain fact is that economics is more often at the heart of upheaval. Breen’s concentrated, authoritatively written treatise on colonial times leading up to the days of the Declaration of Independence paints an impressively detailed portrait of a nation-soon-to-be, chafing under British taxes and a system of commerce designed primarily to support the mother country financially.

Breen sets the stage with academic excellence, utilizing unstinting research to describe the mid-18th-century colonial marketplace, where “American consumers confronted not only an accelerating quantity of exports from Great Britain but also an even greater selection [of goods]. ... The experience of shoppers in the Carolinas and the Chesapeake was not significantly different from that of New Yorkers or New Englanders. ... [T]hey were all being incorporated into a great Anglo-American commercial empire in remarkably similar ways.”

If the British powers-that-be never quite envisioned America becoming a golden goose, neither did they effectively nurture it once its economic importance became obvious. Soon enough, the colonies were awash with enterprise, as a huge market opened up. Breen describes the colonial farm and plantation classes, eager to purchase “manufactured articles that in turn sustained England’s prosperity.” This then spawned a commensurate rise in merchantry (the middle man); in the growth of chain stores (their success assured in a country with poor roads); in the extension of relatively easy credit; and in methods of advertising a seemingly endless supply of housewares, apparel, furniture, farm implements, general supplies and even nonessential decorative items indicative of a burgeoning new economy.

It might even be said that the notion of keeping up with the Joneses reached full flower during this period. In the Old World, Breen states, “status and class were supposed to coincide, so that if a man was accepted as a gentleman by others, he was expected to look like a gentleman. But in the new order, almost anyone of moderate means seemed capable of presenting himself, at least in terms of material possessions, as a gentleman or lady.” Even Benjamin Franklin complained that his wife had caved in to material excess, and he suggested to Parliament “that commerce would ensure American obedience,” while observing that manufacturing would not take hold in the colonies.

Clergy and moral critics may have attempted to “contain the spreading consumer culture,” but it was England’s own missteps toward its energized political stepchild that started the serious rumblings of dissent in the 1760s, thus initiating a decade-long journey toward active mobilized revolt. Bristling under a series of British measures to extract taxes — Stamp Act, Tea Act, Intolerable Acts — and egged on by the stern words of pamphleteers and pseudonymous newspaper contributors, colonists began to take their stand. “[O]nly people who had experienced... the pleasures and frustrations of so many consumer choices,” writes Breen, “could possibly have come to appreciate how a disruption of that market might be an effective weapon in a contest against a Parliament that appeared to rate its own sovereignty above commercial prosperity.”

Colonial outrage spurred men and women to resolute action, especially where the nonimportation of British goods was concerned. “Consumer desire,” Breen states, “could not so neatly be separated as it once was from its political consequences.” Indeed, “visible acts of self-denial” certainly had their power, none more than the dedicatedly enforced boycott against tea, which, Breen notes with irony, was “the signature of a new polite society” but also “the master symbol of the new consumer economy.” On Dec. 16, 1773, when angry patriots dressed as Mohawks invaded British cargo ships and dumped hundreds of chests of tea into Boston Harbor, it was hardly a “carnival event.” Their actions, writes Breen, “invited immediate and severe retaliation. They had violated private property, a provocation no British ruler could ignore.”

But the wonder and miracle of this revolution was the willingness of persons, from New Hampshire to the Carolinas, to trust in their mutual cause. “Before this time,” says Breen, “no other dependent people had so fully come to appreciate that their own economic dependence could be effectively translated into organized resistance, uniting anonymous consumers from Portsmouth to Savannah in a common enterprise that was itself a product of commercial empire.”

The colonists “had begun to think continentally,” Breen concludes. “The experience of mounting ever more effective consumer protests... had encouraged them to imagine a new, geographically inclusive identity.” So did it also provide them the gumption to take arms against England, in a definitive show of stubborn individualism and admirable intraregional unity.

The Marketplace of Revolution concludes on the eve of bloodshed, yet it vividly conveys the critical background of the conflict — where decent citizens are pushed beyond the limits of fairness and experience the highly emotional call to support their feelings with deadly force. The rest, of course, is history.

Martin Brady is a freelance writer based in Nashville, where he is also the theater critic for Nashville Scene. He was formerly a senior editor at Booklist, published by the American Library Association.

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