Book Review of
The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics
Shaped American Independence (Oxford University Press, 2004)
The benefit of hindsight allows modern historians to assume that colonists in British America united easily and naturally to throw off the bonds of tyranny in 1775-1776. The fact that "thirteen clocks were made to strike together" (p.4) surprised even the revolutionary leader John Adams. Prior to the mid-1700s many residents of British North America saw themselves in regional roles rather than as "Americans", they were Virginians or Bostonians, regional loyalties trumped any other including those as British colonial citizens. In T. H. Breen's work, The Marketplace of Revolution, he offers an explanation for the sudden creation of a unique American identity. In his words, "What gave the American Revolution distinctive shape was an earlier transformation of the Anglo-American consumer marketplace" (p. xv). Breen contends that before Americans could unite to resist the British Empire, they needed to first develop a unity and trust with one another in spite of their regional differences. "The Marketplace of Revolution argues, therefore, that the colonists shared experience as consumers provided them with the cultural resources needed to develop a bold new form of political protest" (p. xv). The transformation of the consumer marketplace allowed the colonists of British North America to create a unique British and the American identity that would later result in revolution and the formation of a new nation. This trust based on consumption, Breen concludes, was absolutely necessary for the boycott movement to be an effective tool against the British government. "Unless unhappy people develop the capacity to trust other unhappy people protest remains a local affair easily silence by traditional authority" (p.1).
Breen suggests that the trust that developed during the 1760s and 1770s allowed for the rapid growth of the boycott movement against British goods to pressure Parliament into rescinding taxes imposed without colonial consent. During this period, colonists began to see themselves more in the context of Americans due to the printed materials that were becoming more widespread and abundant, as well as by their participation in the expanding colonial marketplace. According to Breen, consumer goods provided the essential and "powerful link between everyday life and political mobilization" (p.19).
In the early eighteenth century consumer goods flooded American markets, the colonists needed to sell what they produced in order to purchase British goods that were beyond their ability to manufacture and therefore made them feel more a part of the British "empire of goods". Breen successfully demonstrates the spread of imported goods into every niche of colonial America, and further concludes that the consumer revolution "depended ultimately on an extraordinary expansion of credit throughout the Atlantic world" (p.136). In his assessment, Breen suggests that the rapid expansion of the marketplace through credit reflected negatively on those colonials who sought to acquire through credit what they could little afford otherwise. In reality, credit was a necessary evil in matters of business during this period. Because the mother country's economy and state revenues increasingly relied on exporting manufactured goods, a continually growing colonial market became more valuable and credit more and more necessary. The passage of the Navigation Acts had benefited Britain in that they created a captive market for goods produced in England, and made those goods manufactured in other places less affordable than those of British manufacture. In addition, writers of the time encouraged colonists to consider their consumption as essential to the empire, making the consumers feel more British, but creating the means necessary to register their protest in the form of the boycott....
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