Friday, January 16, 2009

The Marketplace of Revolution (A Summary and Review)

T.H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) is a remarkable achievement and a milestone in the field of historiography. Through creative use of a wide variety of unusual sources – including trash pits and ceramic dishes – Breen successfully alters the way the reader may think about the causes of the American Revolution (45, 48). Contrary to popular national mythology, the eighteenth century was not a pastorally rustic era of the simple homespun life: that was actually the seventeenth century, which, according to Breen, was "as different in terms of material culture [from the mid- to late-1700s] . . . as our times are from the late nineteenth century" (65). Enthusiastic participation in a dynamic global economy, Breen argues, provided the foundation for much of the later rhetoric of liberty, self-determination, limited government, and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, the freedom of choice and empowerment found in the marketplace quickly translated into politics when relations between Great Britain and its colonies began to unravel. Experience within that same marketplace had unified Americans in a common commercial culture that would soon extend deeper than goods and advertising.

(In this manner, The Marketplace of Revolution is also an effective answer to Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra: Slaves, Sailors, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, an annoyingly socialist account of revolutionary movements in Europe and its "New World" colonies that nevertheless commits the same error as traditional histories of the American Revolution: "After being relegated to bit parts as urban rioters," says Breen, the common people then "appear almost magically just in time to take up arms against the Red Coats" (308). Plus, Breen totally pwns that godawful Sellers book.)

England had emerged from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 stronger and more confident in itself than ever before, having evolved from an agricultural court society to a modern fiscal-military state. Virtually the only nation to successfully finance war without impoverishing its citizens, Great Britain easily defeated both France and Spain, producing an outpouring of nationalism that quickly spread to its American colonies as well (76-77). Another source of pride was Britain's ingeniously balanced government, an enduring equilibrium composed of three social orders, each of which effectively canceled the inherent dangers of the other two. Since Aristotle it had been well known that royalty, aristocracy, and democracy each held the potential for overall human happiness; left alone, however, they quickly degenerated into tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule (Bailyn 70-71). The same principle of stability and equitable reciprocity extended to Britain's economic relationship with its American territories. Under the policy of "salutary neglect," Britain let the colonists largely alone to see to their own affairs without the coercion and tyranny associated with the colonial regimes of other European nations. In exchange, America could trade with Britain and Britain only. The interests of colonies and mother country were inextricably intertwined, it was argued, as one produced and supplied manufactured goods and the other graciously purchased them (Breen 75). Like its government, the British economic universe was superbly Newtonian: "national, rational, and, most worthy of praise, balanced" (86).

The system was the result of the Navigation Acts passed in the 1660s, which restricted all colonial exports to Britain and denied direct colonial access to other European markets. Americans did not mind, however; in fact, they were grateful for both the military protection and all the wonderful goods they received in return (88-89). Britain, they proudly asserted, was a shining, unique example in the sad, violent history of empire, for it gently cultivated loyalty through trade rather than force (91). In their own writings on the subject of imperial economy, American thinkers stressed several points largely absent from British analyses. Although buying English goods exposed the colonists to potentially serious debt as they paid more for British manufactures than Britain paid for their agricultural products, it was a virtuous sacrifice to benefit the mother country even at the expense of one's own interests. Necessity was a positive condition that inspired reciprocity (93, 97). At the same time, however, the inevitable imbalance of political and economic power between America and Britain was dutifully ignored or sidestepped (98).

Although commercial ledgers reveal that colonists' individual purchases were for the most part quite modest, it was these small transactions that drove a larger world of trade and signified participation in a shared marketplace that extended from New Hampshire down to Georgia (127). For all their ethnic, occupational, regional, and religious differences, millions of Americans daily engaged in an active chain of acquisition that began in the English metropolitan centers of London, Liverpool, and Bristol; arrived in the major port cities of Charleston, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York; was picked up by wholesale merchants and urban shops; and then finally arrived in the myriad country stores scattered throughout rural areas, where wants were created and new worlds were opened up (111-116, 118). Eighteenth century thought from Voltaire to Hume often stressed the civilizing impact of commerce and luxury, arguing that the drive to acquire material goods inspired men to work harder and thus raised society as a whole to new heights of social, technological, and artistic glory. Commercialization, civilization, refinement, and learned culture were all interdependent and mutually reinforcing (McCoy 25-28).

Americans of all classes were thus all too happy to be a part of this community of trade. Breen repeatedly emphasizes the importance of newspapers as one of his major sources, in marked contrast to Bernard Bailyn's seminal The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which focused exclusively on pamphlets written by colonial elites. In fact, Breen seems to indirectly criticize Bailyn in several instances. To begin with, he starts out by basically asserting that too much Revolutionary scholarship has focused on "carefully crafted pamphlets that learned men, many of them lawyers, prepared in defense of American rights and liberties" (27). He later quotes from a "Son of Liberty" who "recognized the value of pamphlets, to be sure, but these publications hardly had the widespread impact of newspapers" (229). Breen also argues that "consumer virtue" – the exercise self-restraint in the marketplace – was far a far more potent force in the powerful non-importation movement than was the republican tradition that "influenced some highly educated colonial American leaders who wrote formal pamphlets" (263). He actually refers to pamphlet-writing as a "parallel discourse" that ran alongside "ordinary men and women [who] were being asked . . . to sacrifice personal comforts for the common good" (299). And it was actually newspapers, according to Breen, that ran the advertisements that stimulated demand and spread a uniform commercial culture, then later helped to unite America by carrying news of the boycotts and other political activities, thereby assuring each colony that it had the support of the others (53-59, 237). Before the tax crises that began with the Stamp Act in 1764, however, the commercial revolution of the 1740s enable ordinary men and women to exercise the power of choice and self-definition as they sorted out their options in an expanding marketplace. As variety increased, decisions became ever more meaningful and self-empowering until one citizen could declare on the eve of independence that "I, for myself, chose that there should be many Stores filled with every Kind of thing that is convenient and useful, that I might have my choices of Goods, . . . whether foreign or homemade; I would have Liberty of either, and to Deal as I judge best for myself. And I wish the same Privilege to all my Friends and Neighbors" (151). A widespread availability of fashionable clothing also eroded class distinctions as one's attire came to reflect personal taste and resources as opposed to social constraint (152-158).

Of course, all good things must come to an end and many colonists experienced the Stamp Act as "a break in the flow of time" not unlike the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 were in the modern United States (218). That Britain could so drastically and unjustly alter a long-standing system of reciprocity and generosity left many colonists feeling betrayed (10-12). The Seven Years' War, which the Stamp Act now sought to pay for, had already forced a reassessment of Americans' self-identification as colonial subjects of a distant crown (200-201); now, a depression drove many to reconsider the benefits and merits of dependence. Indeed, America's over-reliance on British manufactures now struck some as downright slavish (205-208). Calls for reform were sounded, some urging the development of home industry, others suggesting self-sacrifice as a new consumer virtue (210-213, 263). Not surprisingly, the Stamp Act added fuel to the fire and was greeted by burning effigies, the intimidation of royal officials, and the pillaging of houses. It was in this context that imported goods began to serve the same purpose that shared religion or ethnicity has done for other colonial peoples: they provided a means to discuss current issues and unite for action (219-220). Although the non-importation movement began with merchants largely motivated by self-interest – it enabled them to pay off debts and finally get sell off excess stock – appeals for home industry and virtuous consumer sacrifice empowered the common people, who now realized that they too had a voice (223-228, 267). Though the boycotts had little influence on Parliament's decision to back down, they nevertheless taught important lessons (289-291).

These lessons were applied, and then broadened, under the Townshend Revenue Act as non-importation gained momentum and popular appeal. Volunteer groups drew up lists of banned items and angry citizens signed subscription lists pledging their support to the movement and declaring their ideology (235-237, 267). In response, Parliament soon repealed the Townshend Acts and the people resumed purchasing British goods, this time in record numbers (289-291). It was the passage of the 1773 Tea Act in an attempt to bail out the corrupt East India Company that finally transformed mere boycotting into all-out revolution (298-299). When radical Bostonians held their infamous Tea Party in 1774, they knew that British reprisals would be severe but they were also assured of widespread colonial support. Experience in shared protest against a shared commercial culture had given Americans a new continental identity that extended beyond the isolated farms, plantations, and small towns. The 1774 Intolerable Acts enacted against Boston all but sealed the issue (303). Tea had held great social significance in America since the 1740s; now, however, the personal was political, so to speak, and imbibing the hated drink was tantamount to treason and betrayal (306-308). Mere non-importation acquired new dimension as extra-legal committees formed to enforce the ban on tea and other British goods and loyalist property was seized (309). War was all but inevitable.

I found The Marketplace of Revolution to be quite persuasive in recreating the conditions and events that culminated in this Revolutionary War. Not only is T.H. Breen an engaging and frequently humorous writer (I especially liked his description of News from the Moon at the beginning of Chapter 5), but his sources were astonishingly diverse, innovative, and conveniently outlined in Chapter 3: Inventories of Desire: The Evidence. Although references to other scholars do appear, Breen focuses almost entirely on primary sources such as diaries, letters, ledgers, questionnaires sent from the Crown to its royal governors, advertisements, the trash pits found in nearly every colonial backyard, imported goods preserved in museums and private collections, customs and probate records, and, most importantly, the newspapers that did so much to bind Americans together. Although I was rather disappointed that he did not discuss coffee, a personal favorite drink of mine that gained great popularity during the crisis of the Tea Act, The Marketplace of Revolution is an excellent example of the new historiography that borrows from other fields such as archaeology, psychology, and sociology. Though it is possible to over-interpret or over-analyze primary sources – witness the postmodernist "deconstruction" of literature – I feel that Breen managed to avoid this danger. The Marketplace of Revolution comes highly recommended.


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