February 28, 2004
Armies of Consumers: 1776's Secret Weapon?
n February 1766, taken aback by the violent reaction to the Stamp Act, its latest attempt to impose taxes on the restive American colonies, Britain summoned Benjamin Franklin to Parliament in London. The interview, which lasted several hours, was less than friendly. The Americans, Franklin reminded his interrogators, were voracious consumers of British goods, buying them at a rate that far exceeded the colonies' staggering population growth. But this lucrative spending habit, he warned, should not be taken for granted.
The colonists could either produce necessities themselves or do without, he testified. As for "mere articles of fashion," he said, they "will now be detested and rejected."
A month later the Stamp Act was repealed. And American trade in British goods — valued at more than a million pounds a year — continued at a galloping pace. But Franklin's words represented a turning point in the struggle for independence, says T. H. Breen, the William Smith Mason professor of American history at Northwestern. Americans, he argues, had discovered a political weapon without which the Revolution might not have been successful: consumerism.
Is it possible that a signature attribute of contemporary America — and a trait for which it is frequently criticized — lay at the heart of its most inspiring foundational achievement? This is the startling implication of Mr. Breen's new book, "The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence," published earlier this month by Oxford University Press. In his account, the self-sufficient yeoman farmer of Jeffersonian lore is nowhere to be found. Even before America was a nation, Mr. Breen insists, it was a society of consumers.
Deceptively simple, his argument goes like this: two and a half million strong and scattered along 1,800 miles of coastline, the colonists had little in common besides a weakness for what Samuel Adams derisively termed "the Baubles of Britain." When Britain imposed stiff taxes on this appetite for stuff — without granting any political representation — Americans responded with an ingenious invention with instant and widespread appeal: the consumer boycott. By the time the First Continental Congress was convened in September 1774, transforming mass consumer mobilization into a successful political rebellion was a relatively straightforward task.
Or, as Mr. Breen, 61, explained in a recent telephone interview: "Every predictive model that one could have put forward at the time indicated that the colonies, should they beat the British, would have broken into 13 separate entities. Yet somehow enough colonists found enough common cause to make war on what was the strongest military power in the world. How did they create the bond of political trust so that if one city protested or resisted the British, the rest said, `We'll stand with you'? It was this great swelling of consumer experience that was the transformative element."
It sounds far-fetched, possibly scandalous: pinning Americans' success in the war for independence even partly on their common experience in the marketplace. Moreover the notion seems to contradict the long-standing assumption among scholars that lofty ideas elegantly expressed — and a brisk trade in political pamphlets and newspapers — were sufficient to unite the public behind the revolutionary cause.
But in keeping with the latest academic trends, intellectual history is out and material culture is in. Consumerism in particular is a hot topic in American studies these days, and Mr. Breen's book comes garnished with encomiums from senior members of his field, including Joseph J. Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Founding Brothers" (Knopf, 2001), who calls it "the most original interpretation of how the American Revolution happened to appear in print in the last 50 years."
And while others, including Gordon S. Wood, another Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who teaches at Brown, predict that Mr. Breen's thesis will be controversial, they concede his book is important. "I'm not persuaded by the attempt to explain the Revolution," Mr. Gordon said. But he added, it is the first book about the period "to show the scale and depth of consumption in any kind of statistical detail."
Mr. Breen devotes nearly 200 pages to establishing the range and vitality of colonial consumer lust: the mountains of British wool, silk, guns, lead, tin, chalk, coal, paint, furniture, liquor and cheese promoted in colonial newspaper advertisements, logged by customs officials and duly recorded in early American household inventories.
In the last third of the book he turns to politics. After the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765, imposing a duty on papers used in everyday business and legal transactions, Mr. Breen writes, colonial merchants in at least nine towns voted to refuse all British imports until the act was repealed. These initial "nonimportation" agreements (the word boycott wasn't coined until the 19th century) had limited impact and were frequently self-serving.
As Mr. Breen explains, "Many colonial merchants found themselves running up ever larger debts to their British suppliers, and if nothing else, an organized boycott of imported goods held out the possibility of reducing outstanding obligations while also providing a welcome opportunity to unload inventories that because of dull colors or unfashionable designs had been rejected by the consumer."
But after the Townshend Revenue Act (taxing tea, glass, paper and other essential goods) was approved two years later, he argues, the boycott effort became increasingly a public movement. Cities issued detailed lists of taboo items. Hundreds of voluntary associations formed to solicit citizen support and to monitor compliance. And anonymous broadsides attacking those who violated the boycott proliferated. "To the Public," a pamphlet published in Philadelphia in 1770, was typical. Railing against a group of local merchants caught selling banned items, it called the men "Enemies to American Liberty," adding, "their Names will be made public; their Companies avoided; and every Stigma fixed upon them to make them despicable."
Just as important, Mr. Breen stresses, the boycotts allowed women, small-town dwellers and the less well off to become political actors. In Boston in 1770, hundreds of women signed subscription lists forswearing the use of tea. And when, a few weeks after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, a laborer in Dorchester, Mass., found a chest of tea floating just off shore, his patriotic neighbors quickly confiscated it, tossing the tea into a bonfire on the Boston Commons.
The point, Mr. Breen insists in his book, is "not that consumer goods caused the American Revolution," but "rather that British imports provided a necessary but not sufficient cause for the final break with Parliament."
Or, as he put it on the telephone, "the American revolution has a bourgeois foundation, but it's no less radical for that."