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The Consumer Revolution


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In the 1760s and '70s Great Britain was the world's only superpower, and its North American subjects were in many ways closer to the mother country than they were to one another. "Fire and water are not more heterogeneous than the different colonies in North America," wrote English traveler Andrew Burnaby after a visit in 1759 and '60. Split between Puritans on rocky farms in New England, plantation owners in Virginia and the Carolinas, and a motley crew of traders in between, the colonists seemed more likely to come to blows with each other than with anyone else. How on earth did the Americans revolt at all? Anybody can gripe and grumble--and go along with things as they are. How did these people come to trust each other enough to join in armed defiance of their rulers?

Timothy "T.H." Breen, who has taught early American history at Northwestern University since 1970, doubts that the current fashion of publishing books about the Founding Fathers--five new biographies of Benjamin Franklin alone in the past five years--will help answer these questions. Literary agents tell him there's money to be made in biography. But in his opinion, focusing so much on the great men of the American Revolution distorts the reality: "This was the people's revolution--'I can't do much, but I can stop buying tea.'" Moreover, he says, focusing on the leaders can be hazardous. "It makes us think that we have to wait for our Washington or Franklin to come and redeem us," he recently told me. "We've lost our belief in being able to create our own leaders."

Breen tells the alternative story of the founding of this country in his new book, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. During the 1700s the colonists on the east coast of North America began buying lots of fabric, ceramics, and tea from Great Britain--items their parents and grandparents usually made for themselves or did without. When the British parliament began taxing these purchases in unprecedented and seemingly unjust ways, the colonists struck back with the world's first political boycott.

Breen's tale is contrarian in more ways than one. The Founding Fathers play only bit parts, he carries the story only up to 1774, and his thesis that shopping--shopping!--helped turn the colonists into citizen activists will strike some as just plain odd. "I suppose I've always been interested in roads not taken," he says, explaining that he means moments in history when different choices would have changed everything. The run-up to the revolution, which easily might never have started, is one such moment. Another is the subject of a book Breen coauthored with Stephen Innes, "Myne Owne Ground," about a society of black and white farmers that flourished briefly on the eastern shore of Virginia between 1640 and 1676. His next book will explore yet another such moment, the years 1774 through '76--a time of ferment when British authority had disappeared from the colonies but nothing much had taken its place. "Some people were saying, 'We must be living in a state of nature,' and exploring what a new society might look like," he says. "It's one of the most politically inventive, radical periods." It's the time when Abigail Adams (famously) admonished her husband not to forget the ladies, and when the town of Worcester, Massachusetts, (not so famously) voted down a proposed state constitution because it didn't allow Indians, blacks, or mulattoes to vote. In this view history isn't so much a chronicle of events as a storehouse of possibilities to draw on.

In the first half of The Marketplace of Revolution Breen systematically demolishes the popular picture of the American colonists as subsistence farmers who made or grew pretty much everything they used. That wasn't even true in the 1600s. During the 1700s it became less true every year, as colonists bought British goods in ever-increasing amounts. Annual merchandise exports from Great Britain to the colonies quintupled in a generation, going from 871,658 pounds in the mid-1740s to more than 4,500,000 pounds in 1771.

This wasn't just the upper crust gorging on luxury goods--colonial America was a commercial society through and through. Ordinary colonists added color and excitement to their lives with small purchases. In 1721 in Berwick, Maine, peddler William Moore sold Daniel Goodwin "a yard and a halfe of Stuff for handcarchiefs," Sarah Gooding "a yard and Quarter of Lase for a Cap," Patience Hubbard "a pare of garters," and Sarah Stone "one penne worth of smole trifeles" a few days before Christmas. This everyday episode is known only because it's documented in court records--Moore was later tried for not having a peddler's license. Breen bolsters his case with all kinds of evidence--travelers' accounts, customs statistics, letters, newspaper ads, wills, surviving goods in today's museums, and shards documented by archaeologists. "Everyone in this society had a chance to acquire something," he writes. "For elite colonists, the flood of British imports quickly transformed an entire material culture. For most Americans--for those upon whom a colonial rebellion would ultimately depend--the empire first entered their lives as 'smole trifeles.'" Drinking imported tea, an expensive luxury in 1700, had become almost a national addiction by 1770.

Even a quarter of a millennium ago not everyone approved of consumerism. Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Scotland (not the Founding Father) and Reverend John Milne of New Jersey traveled through the colonies in 1744. Along the Hudson River they visited a "small log cottage" where a family named Stanespring lived. While the family went out to pick blackberries, the visitors looked the place over. They were perplexed by the Stanesprings' purchases. A looking glass with a painted frame? Half a dozen pewter spoons and plates? A set of stoneware tea dishes? A teapot? Reverend Milne declared them all "too splendid for such a cottage." The minister wrote--in a tone still adopted by those who complain about other people's big cars and big houses--that the Stanesprings should have made do with wooden plates and spoons and "a little water in a wooden pail" for a mirror.

The Marketplace of Revolution has taken some hits from historian Alan Taylor of the University of California at Davis, writing in the New Republic in February, and Breen expects a tough review from Gordon Wood of Brown University in the New York Review of Books any day now, but few professional historians disagree with this part of Breen's argument (the rest of us may be as surprised as Reverend Milne). The colonists had plenty of rough edges, but most of them weren't self-sufficient farmers, nor did they want to be. Perhaps Breen has buried this Jeffersonian fantasy forever.

How could buying British imports help bring about a revolution? Why didn't all those ribbons and teapots just increase loyalty to the mother country--or make the colonists greedy and apathetic, as today's consumer culture supposedly has made us?

In the 1760s and '70s the growing commercial realm stimulated American public life because in the marketplace all buyers have something in common, and all are equally free to buy--or not buy--what they can afford. As a result colonists who grew different crops in different soils, experienced different climates, and attended different churches came to have a common topic of discussion. When that discussion turned to the possibility of refraining from buying British goods, they all had something in common to refrain from--plus a handy way to check up on the sincerity of others' rhetoric. (Were they still serving tea to guests? Were they still providing extravagant gloves, rings, and scarves to guests at funerals?) Commercialism stimulated public life in another, unplanned way: the monetary "votes" of those excluded from regular politics counted in the marketplace, so they had to be brought into the process and persuaded if any boycott were to succeed.

"Choice in the consumer marketplace gradually merged with a discourse of rights," writes Breen, so that when parliament imposed new taxes that made it harder to buy stuff, they were seen "not only as an annoyance, but also as an attack on basic human rights." No surprise then that the colonists were infuriated when parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, taxing various papers used in business and legal affairs. "This single stroke has lost Great Britain the affection of all her Colonies," wrote William Smith Jr. of New York. They responded with vocal outrage, physical violence, and a campaign for the "nonimportation" of British goods.

So why didn't the colonists rebel in 1765? Why did they wait 11 years? The short answer is that a revolution doesn't happen just because people are upset about losing their rights. They also have to have a way to get together. Stamp Act rioters in Boston and New York couldn't be sure anyone else would back them up. "However much Americans may have detested the new revenue act and however passionately they defended their rights and liberty," writes Breen, as yet they had no "structure of political mobilization that would sustain solidarity among virtual strangers separated by bad roads and historical experience."

This second half of Breen's case is the more controversial. Alan Taylor calls it "brilliantly suggestive" but incomplete, because it doesn't explain why some consumers remained loyal to Great Britain. "Loyalism was strongest in the Middle Colonies and the Carolinas," Taylor writes, "which is precisely where Breen finds the greatest per capita growth in consumption during the mid-eighteenth century." Breen says this criticism applies to all theories about the American Revolution; nobody, he explains, has yet come up with a model that can predict which colonists would become revolutionaries and which would not. Taylor concludes his review with a sour observation on present-day Americans' unwillingness "to compromise their standard of living as individuals to achieve collective goals such as energy independence or environmental protection." Breen simply says, "It happened once."

During three crises that reached a climax in 1774, the colonists improved on the political boycott by trial and error. The nonimportation campaign against the Stamp Act had symbolism but lacked punch, in part because it took time for colonists to get used to the idea that their clothes and teacups might be beautiful indicators of political subjugation. Moreover, merchants had charge of the effort, and they had a financial incentive to slack off or cheat.

Parliament quickly repealed the Stamp Act, but in 1767 it tried again with the Townshend Revenue Act, levying taxes on imported glass, painters' colors, paper, and tea. This time around merchants weren't in charge of the antitax mobilization. Public meetings in Boston, Charleston, Annapolis, and elsewhere drew up lists of items local citizens were expected to quit buying (and merchants to quit selling) after a certain date. These lists were published in the same newspapers whose advertisements had helped the consumer boom along. (The list makers could assume that distant strangers were in much the same position as they were; a nation of subsistence farmers wouldn't have been buying "baubles of Britain" in the first place.) Local groups monitored merchants for compliance and publicly besmirched their reputations if they persisted in selling forbidden items.

In 1770 parliament backed down again, repealing the duties on all goods but tea. Popular resistance collapsed. "Colonial consumers responded to the news by running back to the goods they so dearly loved, accepting political dependence when it no longer seemed so directly tied to unconstitutional forms of taxation," writes Breen. "They did so as a changed people, however."

The logic of the boycott itself was shaking up colonial society. No boycott could succeed if it appealed only to the small circle of property-owning white men who had the vote. Their wives and servants also enjoyed commercial freedom, and so they too had to be persuaded to exercise the bourgeois (but now revolutionary) virtue of self-denial. Ordinary people's opinions now mattered more than ever before. Women, who rarely appeared in public records at this time, signed their names to nonimportation agreements in Boston in 1769.

Parliament provoked a third and decisive crisis with the 1773 Tea Act, in which it gave the East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the colonies. Colonists didn't care to pay to bail out a mismanaged company, and in any case the measure reminded them that they were still paying a tax about which they'd had no say in the first place. In most cities ships carrying the tea agreed to turn back under threat. In Boston there was no compromise, and the resisters resorted to one of history's most famous acts of vandalism: once the ships had docked, they disguised themselves as Indians and threw 342 chests of tea overboard into the harbor. Parliament retaliated by closing the port, stranding the city and putting hundreds out of work.

This show of force was intended to raise the stakes and isolate a troublemaking minority--"a small party, headed by a few factious men," in the imperial judgment. But far from rejecting the Bostonians as extremists, Connecticut farmers sent livestock to the beleaguered city, Pennsylvanians grain, South Carolinians rice. Towns from Georgia to New Hampshire sent money. On August 8, 1774, a meeting of the freeholders of Rowan County, North Carolina, concluded, "The Cause of the Town of Boston is the Common Cause of the American Colonies." That fall the Continental Congress--itself an illegal body--called for the creation of a Continental Association made up of elected local committees that would monitor a new "non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement." Breen writes that these revolutionary institutions further "altered the political chemistry" of the colonies: "It was on this level that ordinary men and women declared their independence."

The Boston Tea Party was just one incident in a political landscape so changed that even the movement's leaders needed ongoing reeducation. In the summer of 1774 John Adams ended a hard day of travel at the house of a Mrs. Huston. He asked if he might drink a cup of tea "provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties"--a weaselly way of boycotting one's tea and drinking it too. She rebuked him and offered him coffee, which he accepted. "About Adams's contribution to the revolutionary cause, there is not the slightest doubt," writes Breen. "It is people such as Mrs. Huston who have been undervalued."

In Dorchester, not far across the water from Boston, an elderly laborer named Ebenezer Withington came across part of a chest of tea lying on the shore, probably one of those thrown overboard a few days before. Oblivious of its politically sensitive origin, he salvaged it and began selling the tea leaves. The local vigilance committee quickly confronted him, took the tea away, and carried it into the city, where it was burned.

That was not the end of Withington's troubles. He had to come before the Dorchester town meeting to tell his story and confess his error. And those who'd bought tea from him had to give it up. Otherwise, in the words of the town meeting, they would be "deemed as Enemies who have joined with the Tea Consigners and other Conspirators, to promote the use of the detested Article, and their Names shall be publicly posted accordingly." A revolution was under way.

Even a bourgeois revolution isn't a tea party. It's a collective, coercive act. In normal times individuals' freedom to buy and sell was a well- understood foundation of public order. But when consumer goods came to signify political slavery, that freedom was abridged. As consumers, the colonists had something to give up, and they all had to give it up temporarily to gain their freedom permanently.

Private consumption and public citizenship fused to begin American history. This book should give both leftists and libertarians pause--one more reason to think Breen is onto something.

The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence by T.H. Breen, Oxford University Press, $30.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Hornscheimer.

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