Book Review


In The Marketplace of Revolution (2004), T. H. Breen reinterprets the American Revolution within the framework of his answer to the question, “What made it possible for the American colonists to transcend their myriad divisions and disagreements and come together as a single people in opposition to England?” His answer is that their shared experience as consumers of British goods both gave rise to their grievances and provided them with a means to unite and prove their loyalty to the new “imagined community” of Americans. The first claim is familiar: Parliament stoked discontent in the colonies by imposing numerous regulations and taxes on commodities that Americans imported. The second claim is original to Breen: the “consumer revolution” of the mid-eighteenth century first went a long way toward culturally homogenizing America, and then later, in the late 1760s and early 1770s, it made possible the colonial boycott of British tea and other goods, which provided ordinary people with the means of proving their commitment to the revolution -- indeed, of getting involved with it at all -- and thus of coming to trust each other during the political fight with England. Thus, the consumer boycott, which Breen credits Americans with inventing, was a necessary condition of the Revolution. By participating in it -- that is, by sacrificing the private pleasures of drinking tea and buying British products for the sake of achieving a common political goal -- colonists effectively created and identified with the new community of ‘Americans,’ and so created the revolution. [Breen likely overestimates the importance of the boycott, however.]


Breen devotes the first part of his book to an analysis of the consumer revolution itself. He shows how it came about and what its social ramifications were. Within three or four decades, people of almost all classes went from living the simple life to living the fashionable life, so to speak: even the lower classes insisted on buying new and colorful goods from England, including trendy clothes and, of course, tea. External distinctions between the upper and lower classes began to break down, and a democratic, liberal consciousness of consumer rights prevailed everywhere. Conservative moralists lamented that one could no longer tell who was a commoner and who a gentleman or lady: they all looked similar. In short, consumption-patterns that ordinary people would previously have considered luxurious became necessary, a necessary component of the good life. This fact is what made their voluntary boycotts of tea and other products during the constitutional crisis with Britain such a powerful statement.


The second part of the book explains in detail the role of massive boycotts in preparing the nascent nation for revolution. As Parliament was passing and repealing in succession the laws and taxes that its colonial subjects found so onerous and insulting (given their lack of political representation), Americans realized that their greatest source of power with respect to England was as consumers of its exports. Due to its size, the American market was extremely important to England. The colonists decided to leverage their economic power to influence Parliament’s policies. Breen traces Americans’ first tentative steps in the late 1760s toward organizing consumer boycotts and shows how the populace grew increasingly radicalized year by year -- up to 1775 -- as its boycotts became more ambitious. The politicization of consumer choice achieved through boycotts was essential to this process of radicalization in that it injected politics even into the domestic sphere; not only men but women were compelled to identify with America, to adopt its cause as their own, by foregoing the pleasures of British goods. By 1776, ordinary colonists had thus constructed a new political identity for themselves.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright