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The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence

Author(s):Breen, T. H.
Reviewer(s):Grubb, Farley

Published by EH.NET (December 2004)

T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. x + 380 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-506395-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Farley Grubb, Department of Economics, University of Delaware.

T. H. Breen presents two propositions. (1) During the middle fifty years of the eighteenth century nothing short of a revolution occurred in colonial consumerism. Colonists became awash in imported British consumer goods that in turn transformed their world materialistically, socially, and conceptually — even down to the meanest members of colonial society. And the colonists were self-aware or conscious of this transformation. (2) This new consumerism influenced revolutionary politics not merely by giving the colonists a weapon to use against the British — the boycotting of British imports — but by providing the colonists a tool with which to assess the degree of patriotic commitment not only of one’s neighbors but of fellow colonists in distant colonies. Those who did not adhere to the cause against the British by boycotting British goods, such as tea, either because they were free riders or because they did not believe in the cause, could be easily spotted by their outward consumerism. They could then be chastised in some way thus stopping free riding from destroying concerted action against the British and, by identifying the “traitors” in their midst, driving the traitors off or silencing them. The end result was that the new consumerism provided the vehicle that allowed cohesive and concerted cross-colony action on a mass-mobilization level against the British.

Now, in some ways this is all old news. That colonial imports of European consumer goods in the fifty years before the revolution rose substantially is well known. That the colonists used the boycotting of British imports as a political weapon, from the Stamp Act through the Townsend Duties and Tea Act, is well known. That colonists who did not tow the line on the boycotts were spotted and threatened is also reasonably well known. So what is new here? Well it is the rich detail with which Breen makes his case. If you ever doubted any of these things or doubted their pivotal importance, then that doubt will be wiped away by Breen’s thorough and detailed presentation.

The first 200 pages of the book are given over to demonstrating proposition (1). Not “how” or “why” this revolution in consumption occurred, but merely “that” it occurred — from every conceivable angle using every possible type of evidence. Breen uses evidence from traveler accounts, from official government correspondence, from government customs records, from newspapers, from probate inventories, from archaeological digs, from museum artifacts, and so on to make his case. This section also has my favorite sentence in the book, “From museums, we move to trash.” The material is presented in a seemingly endless set of individual stories that after awhile start to seem all the same. Faced with this tediously turgid presentation, my eyes glossed over, and only masochistic perseverance got me through. While reading this section all I could think of were images of the author going from archive to archive, library to library jotting down stories on note cards or into computer files and then feeling compelled to tell us every single story he had found. A few stories are entertaining in their own right, but only a few. But there is a reward for perseverance. Breen’s methodology is more like that of an impressionist artist than an economic scientist. Using this analogy, Breen is applying the technique of Pointillism, such as that used by Georges Seurat in his painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” If you stand too close it looks just like a seemingly endless mess of points with each point looking somewhat the same and conveying little individually. But when you step back and take in the whole, all of a sudden an undeniably powerful, yet fuzzy, truth appears — namely proposition (1).

While Breen does not talk about this, for economists his finding presents an important challenge — namely how to reconcile Breen’s undeniable revolution in consumption behavior with even the most liberal estimates of the rate of economic growth in colonial America. That colonists, even the meanest of them, on a per capita basis were incredibly better off in some utility sense in 1770 than they were in 1700 from this revolution in the consumption of imported goods seems undeniable. Yet economists typically find per capita economic growth to be miniscule. This is a puzzle that economists need to address better or reconcile more sensibly than what they have yet done.

The final 125 pages of the book are given over to demonstrating proposition (2). While Breen uses the same technique or methodology here as he used for proposition (1), the nature of proposition (2) makes the outcome less satisfying and more speculative. At best we can say that consumer politics went on, or somehow “shaped” or “influenced” American independence, but by how much is harder to pin down. At one point Breen asserts that this consumer revolution was a “necessary” but not a “sufficient” condition for success in marshalling forces to American independence. But this is undemonstrated, and I don’t think it was even a “necessary” condition. That the course of events took this particular shape is interesting and noteworthy, but it was not necessary in some grander sense, at least not well demonstrated as such. What Breen does convey well is that it wasn’t just the power of consumer boycotts in an economic sense that mattered, but the power to affect collective consciousness over some common issue by the marshalling of mass-participation that came with this particular application of consumer boycotts that was important.

While Breen does not use this language or present it in this way, an economist will readily see the issue as how to marshal and maintain collective action in the face of free-rider incentives when using consumer boycotts as a political tool. Breen clearly demonstrates the prevalence of the incentive to free ride and the response to it via the rise of extra-legal devices to enforce compliance. While Breen illustrates the intrusive power of these compliance devices, he probably underplays the terror inflicted not just on the free-riders and fence-sitters, but also on those who did not agree with this action and legally wanted not to go along, by the extra-legal patriotic committees and mobs who seemingly scrutinized and publicized every outward action of consumption and even invaded peoples’ homes to scrutinize their non-public behavior in consumption. But even after two hundred years it is hard to openly talk about the terror used by patriots in the name of a cause we still hold dear.

In general the evidence is heavily weighted toward the New England, New York, and Philadelphia regions. It would have been nice to have more evidence from a broader swath of colonial locations. Finally, it would have been nice if Breen would not have presumed that the “13” colonies were the only colonies. Why did this story of consumer revolution shaping the politics of revolution and knitting the colonies together into concerted action somehow stop at New Hampshire and Georgia and not affect Montreal, Halifax, Kingston, Bridgetown, and so on? Or if it did, why did it yield a different outcome? Illuminating such would make a nice extension to, or even a test of, the importance of Breen’s propositions.

Farley Grubb is Professor of Economics, University of Delaware. His two most recent publications are “The Circulating Medium of Exchange in Colonial Pennsylvania, 1729-1775: New Estimates of Monetary Composition, Performance, and Economic Growth,” Explorations in Economic History 41 (Oct. 2004), pp. 329-360 and “Creating the U.S.-Dollar Currency Union, 1748-1811: A Quest for Monetary Stability or a Usurpation of State Sovereignty for Personal Gain?” American Economic Review 93 (Dec. 2003), pp. 1778-98.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century